Revamped road to Chaco may be the park's ruin

  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 12 years.

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."

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