A Past Worth Preserving
Chaco Canyon, N.M.
THIS May the nation celebrates the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown as the first permanent English settlement in America. It was a consequential event in 1607, to be sure, but we shouldn’t confuse it with the beginning of the American experience.
For thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived, there were people on this continent who represented highly developed civilizations and who were proficient in art, architecture, agriculture and astronomy. These were the first Americans, and their story is also part of our common heritage.
The most significant evidence of this legacy is here at Chaco Canyon, in the remote desert of northwestern New Mexico, where Native Americans a thousand years ago built a huge complex of great houses, pueblos of exquisite stonework whose rooms sometimes numbered in the hundreds. They built roads that were as wide as 30 feet and extended up to 60 miles to ease trade, ritual and communication. They created, in effect, an empire.
Chaco Canyon today is a collection of magnificent ruins whose archeology tells us as much as we know, which is not enough, about these mysterious people. A unit of the National Park Service, the canyon is as well preserved and interpreted as an underfinanced budget allows. Unfortunately, other significant archeological sites nearby are increasingly at great risk. Most of these are also on public lands, largely those of the Bureau of Land Management, which has a bifurcated and inherently conflicted mission to both preserve and exploit the resources entrusted to it. With ever increasing pressure for oil and gas drilling on these lands, coupled with greater access by off-road vehicles that can go nearly anywhere and when unmanaged can do great harm, more and more of our heritage on these lands is in danger of being obliterated.
Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon, known as the world’s longest art gallery because it contains more than 10,000 petroglyphs, could soon be home to nearly 2,000 oil and gas wells. With them will come hundreds of miles of pipeline, compressor stations, new roads and hundreds of heavy trucks whose vibrations and dust can cause irreversible damage to ancient rock art.
Agua Fria National Monument in Arizona, abundant in archeological sites, is attracting growing numbers of visitors from nearby Phoenix seeking recreation, too many of them unfortunately in off-road vehicles. From 2000 to 2004, their number increased fivefold. In spite of the growth in visitors, which increases the threat of looting and vandalism, there is still only one ranger to protect the monument.
Similarly affected by these vehicles is Gold Butte, near Las Vegas. A recent study by volunteers monitoring vandalism at Gold Butte showed a 366 percent increase in major damage to cultural sites in the area from 2004 to 2005, including numerous incidents of graffiti and bullet holes in petroglyph panels. The same sad story is too familiar elsewhere.
More federal financing is needed to protect these places and to survey archeological sites. Only about 6 percent of Bureau of Land Management lands have been surveyed. And we can’t protect these sites if we don’t know where they are. While much of this land is generating huge oil and gas revenue, some reasonable share of that revenue should be returned to care for these sites.
Over the years, Congress and the president have protected a number of sites by designating them national monuments, wilderness and conservation areas, historic trails and wild and scenic rivers. The most important of these sites — the “crown jewels” of the sites under the Bureau of Land Management — have been included in the National Landscape Conservation System to highlight their scientific, educational, cultural and ecological values. Unfortunately, this system has no official statutory basis and can be eliminated at the whim of the interior secretary. Congress needs to make this conservation system permanent and provide money to protect these priceless sites for future generations.
What is needed most urgently, however, is an appreciation by the American people that these pueblos and panels of rock art are not only places considered sacred by many living Native Americans but also that they are part of the American experience, and thus part of our shared history.
Richard Moe is the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.