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Tightening Down on Chaco Visits

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The logic in Chaco Culture National Historic Park’s proposed changes to the park’s management plan seems to be that the park must gird its loins pronto against the possible threats of the future.

Try these arguments on for size:

If the dirt road that provides access to Chaco Canyon is ever paved, more people will visit the park, so precautions must be made now to protect the ruins from the influx of people who might come later.

With the park being featured on a specially minted quarter out this week, more people will learn about Chaco as they dig for change at the soda machine, and those people might get in their cars and drive over the (potentially, at some point) paved road and visit the park.

And don’t forget that Chaco is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As soon as people snap to that (prompted to think about it by the quarter in their pocket, perhaps), they will flock to Chaco on the maybe someday (but not yet) paved road.

These are the Gordian knots the National Park Service has tied itself into in its argument for putting some immediate restrictions on access to the park and making plans for others.

The proposal suggests two tiers of changes – some immediate and others that would be triggered if park visitation reached certain levels.

One immediate change would be to require all visitors to attend a park ranger program or watch an orientation video before being allowed access to park’s loop road and the ruins that lie beyond. It envisions the possibility of using an automatic gate (imagine an entrance to a gated parking lot or garage) to prevent people from reaching the loop road before they have listened to the orientation spiel.

On any day, I would much rather hike over hill and dale at Chaco than read a 188-page environmental assessment of proposed management changes there. But I’ve spent a few days reading the report so I could share with you the visual image of a parking lot gate out in the desert near Casa Rinconada and Pueblo Bonito.

Other immediate changes if the plan is adopted by park management?

Groups would have to make reservations and would be capped at two groups a day. And a reservation system would be set up for the campground, with some campsites set aside for people arriving without reservations.

If park visitation increased, the park would go to much more stringent restrictions that would put the entire park on a reservation system that would cap daily park visitation.

Chaco is an unusual place. It’s not Disney World or Mesa Verde or even Bandelier. Its historical story is unique, its treasures – massive pre-Puebloan great houses and kivas dating to the 9th through 13th centuries – are hidden like Easter eggs, and the place is free to unencumbered rambling.

Chaco’s visitors tend to be different, too. They make quite an effort to get there, driving out into northwestern New Mexico and navigating a dirt road. And they find deep meaning – cultural, scientific, architectural and spiritual – in the cliffs and stone buildings.

While the document seems to grasp at every possible reason why park visitation will increase, that hasn’t been the case. Visitation has dipped below 40,000 people in recent years from a previous average of about 50,000 a year.

So why make changes now? Don White, the park’s acting superintendent, told me this week that he hadn’t read through the report, but that the park wanted to strike a balance between taking care of its resources and maintaining for visitors the generally unregulated experience they expect to find at Chaco.

The park’s report points out that some visitors to Chaco don’t always act with respect. They walk on walls, carve their initials into petroglyphs, leave human ashes and take pot shards. If the park doesn’t tighten visitors’ leashes, it argues, the cultural resources people love may eventually be loved to death.

If you’ve got strong opinions about the future of one of New Mexico’s treasures, you’ve got a few more days to weigh in on the proposal. The comment period ends on Monday.

Like Chaco itself, the management plan isn’t easy to find. You have to look under “park news” on the Chaco website, find “news releases” and click through three more times on the management plan to find the comment button.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie Linthicum at 823-3914 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal