It takes an intrepid visitor to reach the ancient sites at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. After leaving the highway, archaeology aficionados travel a tooth-rattling 16 miles over a washboard gravel road. The road is passable, even to low-clearance passenger vehicles, but it isn’t the most comfortable drive. And that’s just the way the park employees like it: "That road has been a part of the whole Chaco mystique," says Russ Bodnar, chief of interpretation at the park. "That’s not something too many folks have the pleasure of experiencing (at other national parks)."
But in March,
northern New Mexico Rep. Tom Udall, D, asked Congress for $1
million to improve the road. According to Udall’s office, he
acted at the request of the New Mexico Department of Tourism and of
San Juan County, which wants to chip seal and improve County Road
7950. According to officials with the county, which maintains the
road, its current condition represents a liability. San Juan County
Commission Chair James Henderson says their request is a
"good-faith effort to make it as safe as possible."
Archaeologists, however, worry that sealing the road will encourage
more tourism — and thus affect the park’s fragile
ruins, which date to between A.D. 850 and 1250. "Whether it’s
a good idea or not, it needs research," says Dr. Lynne Sebastian,
who was New Mexico’s state historic preservation officer for
The county must assess the local need for the
road, she says, as well as determine how increased visitation could
affect the National Park Service’s ability to manage the
resources at Chaco within its current budget: "If this were a road
that went anywhere, this would not be a big issue — but this
is a road that goes to a World Heritage Site."