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County Paving the Way to Chaco

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    Tucked into a massive transportation bill that cleared Congress last week and is headed to the president's desk is $800,000 that will settle once and for all a popular New Mexico campfire debate:
    Should the road to Chaco Canyon be paved or not?
    The road money is set aside to put chip seal— a cheaper-than-asphalt paving option— on the 16 miles of dirt road that lead to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
    If you've ever visited the spectacular Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon, you know the road and probably either love it or hate it.
    To many tourists, the tooth-loosening, suspension-killing, dust-raising washboard road is a perilous hurdle to enjoying an otherwise wonderful trip.
    "Dirt road is terrible!" a recent visitor wrote in the park's comment book.
    To others, the same jolting journey is a rite of passage and badge of honor, the perfect way to approach the wild and remote homeland of an ancient people.
    "Awe-inspiring," another visitor wrote. "Don't pave the road!"
    "It goes right down the middle," said Chaco's chief of interpretation Russ Bodnar. "Fifty percent find it appalling and 50 percent think it's part of the park's charm."
    Come this fall, San Juan County road workers will begin taming County Road 7950, the first step toward making the road dirt-free.
    The county will begin paving work on the first three miles of 7950 using state and county money. With federal funds on the way, the county will then begin to tackle the remaining 13 miles next year, according to San Juan County Public Works Administrator Dave Keck.
    "If we get the green light from everybody," Keck said, "we'll begin to pave (the remaining stretch) next spring."
    New Mexico's Historic Preservation Office will weigh in on the issue, trying to make sure concerns about safety and convenience are balanced with protection of Chaco's priceless resources.
    "Paving the road seems like a simple response," State Historic Preservation Officer Katherine Slick said. "But I think we need to work with the county to minimize the harm to the resources."
    Each year about 80,000 people make their way to the park to walk where pre-Puebloan Indians walked hundreds of years before. Their grand system of pueblos and intricate architecture, seemingly frozen in time in the stark canyon, draw tourists from around the country and around the world.
    With only 80,000 visitors a year and 30,000 acres to roam— and the nearest motel more than 50 miles away— the park retains a sense of wildness that makes paving the road more than a simple public works project, Bodnar said.
    "It is part of the whole mystique," he said.
    The park opened as a national monument in 1907, the year before Henry Ford introduced the Model T, and became a national park in 1980. For its entire history, the park has been off-limits to travelers in lumbering recreational vehicles, low-slung sports cars or any vehicle whose owner isn't willing to surrender it to some dust and possible dings.
    For years, the park was accessible from five directions on five washboard roads— ranging in length from 16 to 35 miles.
    With the closure of the northern entrance off N.M. 57 years ago, the access choices were narrowed to four. And with the paving of the first five miles of County Road 7900 at the eastern entrance off U.S. 550 at Nageezi more recently, that became the shortest and quickest route into the park via County Road 7950.
    Still, rain can turn the remaining 16 miles of dirt into goopy caliche, snow can close it to even the most intrepid drivers, and travel even on a typical sunny day can be treacherous.
    Depending on how recently the road has been graded, Bodnar said, "it can be pretty smooth sailing or it can be washboard and uncomfortable."
    Park Superintendent Barbara West, on the job only six weeks, said San Juan County officials have kept her informed about their paving plans, but she said the road belongs to the county and the decision is theirs.
    Keck said he understands sentiment in favor of keeping park access rough, but he said San Juan County must also consider the safety of travelers and the county's liability for accidents.
    Slick of the State Historic Preservation Office said smoother access would lead to more park visitors and possibly less respectful ones, including vandals.
    "We all have to take a step back and see that there are competing needs and work together to balance those needs," she said.