Chaco Culture National Historical Park (CHCU): 

Road Projects Background Information


Prepared by the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division (HPD)


Chaco Culture NHP is located in a remote portion of northwestern New Mexico, roughly equidistant from the communities of Farmington, Gallup, and Albuquerque.  It is accessed only by dirt roads (see descriptions of “northern” and “southern” routes, below).  In 1992, the entrance road was re-routed to protect park resources and the roads within the park were paved. 


Important dates for the park:

1           Established as Chaco Canyon National Monument in 1907;

2           Re-designated as Chaco Culture National Historical Park by Congressional legislation in 1980;

3           Designated as a World Heritage Site (together with Aztec Ruins NM) in 1987.


Why was the park created?

From the park brochure: 

“Chaco Canyon was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture between AD 850 and 1250. It was a hub of ceremony, trade, and administration for the prehistoric Four Corners area - unlike anything before or since... Chaco is remarkable for its monumental public and ceremonial buildings, and its distinctive architecture. To construct the buildings, along with the associated Chacoan roads, ramps, dams, and mounds, required a great deal of well organized and skillful planning, designing, resource gathering, and construction. The Chacoan people combined pre-planned architectural designs, astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping, and engineering to create an ancient urban center of spectacular public architecture - one that still amazes and inspires us a thousand years later… The Chacoan cultural sites are fragile and irreplaceable and represent a significant part of America's cultural heritage. The sites are part of the sacred homeland of Pueblo Indian peoples of New Mexico, the Hopi Indians of Arizona, and the Navajo Indians of the Southwest, all of whom continue to respect and honor them.”


What is current status of the roads to Chaco?

The primary access to the park is currently the “northern route,” connecting from US 550 (the road from Albuquerque/Santa Fe to Farmington) via County Roads (CRs) 7900 and 7950, both located entirely outside of the park.  There is another, “southern” entrance to the park that leads from NM 371 (a connector highway between Farmington and I-40), via Routes 57 (formerly CR 14) and 9, accessed just a few miles north of Crownpoint.  Route 57 is unpaved.  Route 9 is improved, with either pavement or a chip-seal surface.  More attention and emphasis is doubtless being paid to the northern route since that is the way most visitors are coming in, especially visitors stopping at CHCU on their way to/from Mesa Verde or Santa Fe/Albuquerque.  The southern route likely gets more use as a transportation corridor for local traffic.


Paving the access road(s) to the park has been an off and on topic for 50-60 years, as documented in correspondence files maintained at the park.  Although none of the roads to the park consist of paved, maintained transportation corridors, they are all usable by ordinary passenger vehicles throughout the year.  At the close of the summer monsoon season and in early spring there are locations along the roads—including poorly drained spots, washboard surfaces, and deep ruts—that can create challenges for drivers lacking experience in negotiating rough terrain.  A high-clearance SUV is nice to have for driving in to the park, but it is not a necessity.  It is also worth noting that a poor/inexperienced driver (or someone driving too fast) can get stuck or have other difficulties on the way in or out of the park, even in an all-terrain vehicle.


CR 7900 provides the connection between US 550 and CR 7950, traveling approximately 5 miles to the junction with CR 7950.  San Juan County has improved it previously, and it is now chip-sealed up to the junction with CR 7950.  CR 7900 is probably an RS2477 right-of-way across BLM lands, although this fact should be verified with the County or with BLM.  It also crosses Navajo Nation land and privately owned land.  CR 7900 continues south for a considerable distance from the junction with CR 7950.  Approximately 12 miles south of the CR 7950 junction it crosses CR 46 and some unnumbered dirt roads, providing access to Pueblo Pintado, a Chacoan “great house” outlier also managed by CHCU as a detached unit.  Ultimately, CR 7900 crosses NM 197 and connects with US 550 near the community of San Ysidro, approximately 75 miles south of the CR 7950 junction.


CR 7950 is approximately 16 miles in length, and represents an RS2477 right-of-way across BLM lands.  It also crosses Navajo Nation lands before it terminates at the park entrance.  San Juan County has improved and maintained CR 7950 over the past 5 years, adding gravel in some sections and culverts to improve drainage.  In the early 1990s, the county added a cement slab at the point where Escavada Wash crosses CR 7950.  Interestingly, the portion of the road from Escavada Wash to the park entrance (approximately 3 miles in length) has never been formally designated as a road.  It was an informally created two-track until the early 1980s, when it was bladed and linked to the rest of CR 7950.  The means by which this decision was reached and implemented are unclear, as is the status of the road.  Can it legitimately be considered as an RS2477 road right-of-way?    


RS2477 Rights-of-Way Roads:  In 1866, when the Lode Mining Act (which included a public roads statute) was passed, the General Land Office (GLO), a US Department of the Interior agency, administered the country’s vast stretches of unreserved public lands.  A departmental reorganization combined the GLO and the Grazing Service in 1946 to create the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which continued the GLO’s duties.  Roads or trails created during GLO/BLM land management are the focus of Revised Statute (RS) 2477.  This statute allowed public rights-of-way to be established on land held by the federal government but not reserved for a particular purpose, particularly with respect to public access.  County governments typically act as trustees for the public, holding these rights-of-way, while state laws govern construction and maintenance.  Passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) in 1976 made a provision for superseding RS2477 and altered the legal landscape in which RS2477 rights-of-way controversies are settled.  In the past 25 years, Congress and the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture have wrestled with issues of intent and authority for grandfathered RS2477 rights-of-way, seeking to balance the interests and the rights of the public.  With respect to CRs 7900 and 7950, the informal opinion of the BLM to date is that the RS2477 status of these roads does not invoke compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).  


What is planned for the current road projects?

County Road 7900 and County Road 7950 are listed for treatment in 2006 and 2008, respectively.  According to San Juan County, improvements will consist of subgrade stabilization, road base installation, and chip-sealing of surfaces.  All work will be performed within the current road prism or alignment with the exception of a staging area located at the intersection of the two roads. 

1           Funding sources for the 2006 work include State legislative monies and County general funds.  According to Ronald S. Trujillo, the  NMDOT Local Government Road Fund Coordinator for District 5, the 2006 state funding is allocated solely from state funds appropriated by the New Mexico State Legislature.

2           The funding sources for the 2008 work are special appropriations, part of a larger award package negotiated for New Mexico by Congressman Tom Udall under the aegis of H.R. 3, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005 (aka SAFETEA).  According to Udall, approximately $800,000 is earmarked for improvements to CR 7950.


The improvements proposed to CR 7900 for 2006 are planned for the portion of the road that continues from the CR 7950 junction to a point 5 miles south, crossing BLM, Navajo Nation, and private land.  This stretch of CR 7900 is currently graded dirt road, so the chip-sealed surface will be a substantive improvement.  This proposed improvement may facilitate increased visitor access to Pueblo Pintado; impacts to the site will likely increase as a result.


The improvements proposed for to CR 7950 for 2006 are planned for the portion of the road that continues from the junction with CR 7900 towards the park, crossing BLM and tribal land, approximately 3 miles.  When the additional, federal funds become available in 2008, the remaining 13 miles would be similarly improved.  CR 7950 is currently graded dirt road, so the chip-sealed surface and other improvements represent a substantive improvement.


Status of consultation regarding the proposed roads projects

To date, almost no formal consultation has taken place.  In April of 2005 the San Juan County Commission Chairman (Dr. Jim Henderson) and his staff met briefly with the SHPO and CHCU staff to discuss the proposed projects.  Their concerns, as expressed at that meeting, are as follows:

1        Current conditions along the roads are poor, and unsafe (the County feels that there are liability issues); many local residents (including the Navajo Chapter), would like to see the road improved;

2        The proposed improvements, to be confined within the existing road easements, do not trigger any NEPA/NHPA compliance issues;

3        The County requested help from the National Park Service (NPS) in complying with NEPA/NHPA requirements and asked that the NPS not create “roadblocks” to this project. 


The Public Works Administrator of San Juan County (David Keck) formally contacted HPD in June of 2005, providing details about the proposed work (including maps), and requesting information regarding any issues that needed to be addressed before the projects could proceed.  HPD replied that the inclusion of federal land elevated the projects to the level of undertakings which must be consulted upon as per Section 106 of the NHPA, even though only state/county funds will be used for the first phase of the work.  HPD also recommended that the County inquire into the need for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements, as well as internal NMDOT compliance procedures.  Other HPD recommendations included:

1        Additional cultural resources identification survey needed for portions of CR 7950, and assessment of eligibility and effect for previously recorded and any newly archaeological sites in the Area of Potential Effects (APE);

2        Tribal consultation, with the Navajo Nation as a governmental entity with land status in the APE, but also with the Navajo Nation and all other Native American tribes with traditional cultural property affiliations with the APE;

3        Consultation with CHCU regarding potential adverse effects to the World Heritage Resources in the park as a result of the planned road improvements.


Over the course of the past several months, HPD has received the requested cultural resources survey documentation from San Juan County, and a letter from the Navajo Nation documenting the fact that the Navajo have been informed about the proposed improvements.  The letter from the Navajo Nation expressed support for the proposed improvements.  No traditional cultural property issues, or other issues, were identified by the Navajo.  No eligible archaeological sites have been identified within the portions of the roads slated for work.  There is no indication that other tribes or other potential stakeholders (other than the NPS) have been contacted regarding the proposed work.


How do federal and state cultural property protection laws apply?

1        As the San Juan County has envisioned, planned, and described the proposed improvements, the 2006 work (CR 7900 and CR 7950) and the 2008 work are Phases 1 and 2 of the same project.  Although the 2006 work relies on state and local funding, the 2008 work is federally funded and clearly invokes compliance with Section 106 of the NHPA and NEPA.  Phase 1 of the same project should also be treated as a Section 106 consultation.  By undertaking the cultural resources identification survey and contacting the Navajo Nation, the NPS, and HPD, the County has covered substantial ground with respect to the Section 106 consultation requirements.  Lacking, however, is documentation that San Juan County has contacted any of the numerous other tribes that hold the Chacoan landscape sacred.  Likewise the County has not discussed potential adverse effects to CHCU with either HPD or the NPS.

2        The New Mexico Cultural Properties Act (18-6-1 through 18-6-17 NMSA 1978) provides for the preservation, protection, and enhancement of structures, sites, and objects of historical significance within the state.  Under this statute, San Juan County as a subdivision of the state of New Mexico should afford the SHPO the opportunity, through consultation, to avoid or minimize adverse effects (“uses” in the language of the law) on the registered cultural properties preserved at CHCU.  Additionally, the Prehistoric and Historic Sites Preservation Act (18-8-1 through 18-8-8 NMSA 1978) states that “No public funds of the state or any of its agencies or political subdivisions shall be spent on any program or project that requires the use of any portion of or any land from a significant prehistoric or historic site unless there is no feasible and prudent alternative to such use, and unless the program or project includes all possible planning to preserve and protect and to minimize harm to the significant prehistoric or historic site resulting from such use.”  The proposed road improvements as now configured could pose “uses,” or adverse effects, to the cultural sites preserved at CHCU, including sites in the main part of the park as well as the Pueblo Pintado detached site.  Compliance with state cultural properties protection laws mirrors Section 106 compliance, and includes a public meeting requirement.

3        The Governor’s Executive Order No. 2005-003 directed state agencies to prepare tribal consultation plans in recognition of and to show respect for the sovereignty of Native American Tribes, Pueblos, and Nations and with the intent of ensuring that the State of New Mexico’s actions do not have the unintended and inadvertent result of “…disturbing and adversely impacting Native American cultural and historic sites and sacred places.”  San Juan County, as a political subdivision of the state of New Mexico, would comply with the spirit of the executive order by proactively consulting with all Native Americans governments that are culturally affiliated with the cultural properties of CHCU and the surrounding region regarding the roads improvement projects.  


Talking Points Summarizing the Major Issues to Date


1        The statuses of all the road segments scheduled for improvement are not completely clear (i.e., are CRs 7900 and 7950 both RS2477 ROWs?  If so, what is the formal opinion of the BLM regarding the need for Section 106 consultation?  Also, what is the land status of the CR 7950 road segment from Escavada Wash to the park?).


2        The proposed road improvements scheduled for 2006 and 2008 are phases of the same project, and should be consulted on as per Section 106 of the NHPA as well as applicable NM state law.  NEPA requirements also apply.


3        Formal tribal consultation has not taken place (the Navajo Nation has been informed, but there is no documentation that other tribes have been contacted.  Also, the nature of contact between the County and the Navajo Nation is unclear—i.e., did formal consultation occur?).


4        Formal consultation with the NPS has not taken place, and effects to the World Heritage Sites preserved at CHCU have not been considered.  Potential adverse effects to these sites from increased public access are numerous.


5        Public meetings regarding the proposed improvements have not been held.  Many details about public sentiment towards the improvements have not been specified.  It is unclear whether local residents actually support the improvements, how many local children (for example) would utilize the potential increased access to bus routes, etc.  Numbers for local residents are very low, and it has always been unclear why these road improvements are a high priority for San Juan County at this time.


6        At this point in time, HPD is requesting consultation as per applicable state and federal law, and not that the proposed road improvements be stopped.


7        San Juan County has already begun the work on the first three miles of CR 7950, preparing for the chip-seal to be laid down as soon as it is warm enough to do so, with no further consultation.