CHACO CANYON - The roads radiating out from Chaco Canyon stretch out across mesa tops toward distant mountains. These roads, which average 30 feet wide, were highways of foot travel for people who had neither the wheel nor the horse.
The Chacoans built their roads over a thousand years ago to bring people to their great houses for ceremonial rites and community gatherings. These roads also enabled the Chacoans to haul timbers for construction, bringing enormous logs hefted by human labor from the Chuska Mountains, 50 miles away.
Today, these roads are intersected with access routes to drill rigs as the oil and gas industry penetrates the Southwest and explores energy resources where ancient footprints still mark the ground.
I visited Chaco Canyon for the first time two weeks ago and was awed by the scope and scale of this ancient place of communion, trade and spirituality. The Great Houses are testimonials to the ingenious engineering and labor of stone-age people who stacked rock with artistic flare and structural integrity.
While I was looking over the sites from the ground, Eco Flight was in the air. Chief pilot and founder, Bruce Gordon, recently wrote his Captain’s Log describing a “day with the ancients” on October 5.
Eco Flight, which is based in Aspen, was doing more than sight-seeing. Its mission was observing drill rigs encroaching on Chaco, and it produced stunning images.
Here’s what Gordon wrote about his aerial observations:
"Following a road from the air 1,000 feet above ground level is something we used to do on a daily basis, especially before the advent and routine use of GPS. So when the archaeologist onboard said fly to the Twin Angel Great House and follow the Great North Road south, I thought 'piece of cake,'" Gordon wrote.
"The Great North Road leads south down to Chaco Canyon and was the main 'thoroughfare,' not just for trading and a means to get to other Great Houses, like Pierre's Complex (discovered in the 1970s) along the way, but was also thought to be an ancient Pueblo religious pathway leading to their place of origin and along which the spirits of the dead travel," Gordon continued.
"What our onboard archaeologist failed to point out to me was that the road was 30 feet wide, nearly 1,000 years old, and now lays in the midst of a spider web network of oil and gas exploratory well sites. Back to the good old GPS.
"The Twin Angel Great House is one of the smaller of the Great Houses, with only 17 rooms (some had hundreds), and while a bit difficult to spot from the air, you can see how it was strategically located, and can imagine the similarities to the placing of Medieval castles.
"The road goes due north on an unusually straight line given the year of 'construction,' over mesas and through washes where it ends up in Chaco. Seven other roads lead into and out of Chaco, like an ancient interstate system.
"And then there is Chaco itself, which in the early 1000s had become the ceremonial, administrative, and economic center of the San Juan Basin.
"The Partnership for Responsible Business, an educational arm of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, sponsored our overflights to show the value of this special landscape to business owners, tribal leaders, and journalists. The flights were very compelling, and generated many news stories.
"If you have the opportunity to travel to Chaco it is a goldmine of archaeological information. It is inspiring and timeless. One of the most unique aspects of this National Historical Park is that it is classified as an International Dark Sky Park due to the lack of lights, near and distant," Gordon continued.
"Our flight objective was to highlight New Mexico’s treasured landscapes as the BLM is set to make two major decisions this coming year on drilling on public lands. The first decision will be on where, when and how the drilling will occur in areas that include wildlife habitat, cultural artifacts and sites important to the Pueblos and Navajo. The second decision will be on flaring and venting, and the associated waste and pollution. To literally illuminate these well sites that are flaring natural gas, we did a night flight.
"It was a magnificent evening with calm air and clear skies; and it became even more obvious that drilling near these ancient, spiritual and archaeological gems will need to be carefully managed and requires a substantial comprehensive plan moving forward," Gordon concluded.
A picture tells a thousand words, and Eco Flight’s night images reveal light pollution from flaring.
During my visit, these flare had yet to wash out a night sky chalky with star glimmer. Sleeping under the stars in this mystical place offered a cosmic epiphany of a rare and fading variety, a connection to deep space from an ancestral center of the desert southwest. Such inky darkness and historic value is found in only a few remote places today.
Eco Flight’s daytime images show what Gordon calls a “web of roads” leading in all directions and marring mesas that have known few other tracks than those of the Chacoans.
Even as gas prices plummet due to a glut of American oil, the push for drilling knows no bounds. You see it in low fuel prices on the marquees of gas stations, and you feel it with intrusions of 21st century energy development writ large on the austere canvas of New Mexico.
The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance reports that only public pressure stands between road building for disruptive drilling and Chaco’s setting in a sanctuary-like park.
“Oil and gas drilling on state lands within view of the Park’s Visitor Center continues to be a significant threat,” reports the alliance on its webpage.
“In addition, development threatens Chacoan ruins to the north on Bureau of Land Management lands. These lands are part of a connective corridor to the Bisti / De-Na-Zin Wilderness through the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area. It is also clear that oil field dust, air pollutants and noise will reduce visibility while also threatening the health of people living downwind from the development.”
The alliance states that widespread publicity pressured Cimarex Energy to delay any immediate plans for developing leases visible from the Park’s Visitor Center.
“The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, working on behalf of our members and people around the world, has met with the State Land Office and other agencies to forestall development. In other recent developments, a carefully crafted agreement between San Juan County, the Navajo Tribe and the Park that addressed partial paving and management of the dirt road that leads to the Park has fallen through.”
Chaco Canyon is a site worthy of protection for its archeological treasures. This is an issue that is not flying beneath the radar of regional conservationists.