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In this KUNM series, reporter Laura Paskus explores natural gas drilling and the burgeoning oil industry in northwestern New Mexico--its benefits, impacts, and future. Funding provided by the New Venture Fund.

Archaeologists Worry As Drilling Approaches Chaco

Laura Paskus
The energy industry's footprint is easily visible from the sky in northwestern New Mexico.

The oil and gas industry in New Mexico is a big deal. It supports the state budget with hundreds of millions of dollars each year. But there are impacts, too – on air quality, water, public health and even cultural sites. In the first installment of KUNM’s new series Drilling Deep, we explore northwestern New Mexico – and the Chacoan landscape.

To reach Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you hang a left off highway 550 near Nageezi, New Mexico and head south.

At first the road is paved, though you still might see a few skinny horses crossing back and forth looking for something to eat in the desert scrub.

Then, after the pavement ends, it’s about another 14 miles to the park. That’s 14 miles of a dirt road considered “suitable” – in good weather – for all vehicles. In bad weather you can watch Escavada Wash take over the road – and in some places be up to your wheel wells in mud.

“I get an overwhelming feeling of, I'm coming back to a wonderful ancient place," says Paul Reed, an archaeologist with the nonprofit Archaeology Southwest. “It might sound a little corny, but a lot of people have that quasi-religious experience driving into Chaco.”

From his job at nearby Salmon Ruins, he drives into Chaco regularly—and he likes that long, unpaved road. “You see Fajada Butte and then you begin the loop road through the canyon where you can tour up to ten different great house structures," Reed explains. "You really get a sense of how monumental the building was in Chaco and really what the place must have meant to the people who lived there.”

Across northern New Mexico, there are important ancient sites: Chaco Canyon, Aztec ruins, and Salmon Ruins where Reed works. And thousands of sites in between. They’re all a part of what archaeologists call the Chacoan Landscape. This was the cultural center of the Southwest where Puebloan people lived for hundreds of years until about AD 1250. They built roads, traded with communities as far south as Mexico and Central America, and they innovated a unique building style that’s still stunning today.

Credit Laura Paskus

Until two years ago, Barbara West was the superintendent at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. She remembers visiting Pierre’s site, one of the Chacoan villages that is outside the park boundaries. “It was out in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “Now if you go to Pierre’s site, you park on a well pad in order to visit this portion of the World Heritage site.”

This landscape is always changing. There are floods and winds. Ancient buildings crumble. Or fill with sand. Today, some of the biggest changes have to do with what modern humans are pulling from the ground.

This region has been drilled for natural gas for more than half a century. There are tens of thousands of wells. And although the federal government has kept development back from the ruins at Pierre’s, West says it’s not the same since drilling took off there in the 1970s.

Credit Laura Paskus

“That dynamic has changed because there didn’t seem to be a way in which to take account of the values associated with Chaco at the time oil and gas leasing was going on,” she says.

Meanwhile, Bruce Gordon has a six-seater Cessna 210. He’s president of the nonprofit ecoFlight, and he flies government officials, reporters, activists, and others over landscapes that need a wide view.

We take off from the Farmington airport—heading toward Chaco Canyon. Gordon talks and points at the remains of ancient roads and buildings, but over the noise of the engine, I can’t hear what he’s saying. So I just stare out the window.

Credit Laura Paskus

There are squiggly washes everywhere. There are badlands that from the sky are black, orange, red, white. And there are corrals and Navajo homes at the end of long, straight roads.

There are also well pads, tanks and rigs. From above, the landscape looks like stretched spiderweb.

Natural gas was the big boom until a few years ago, when the market was glutted. Then, about a year ago, two energy companies announced they were investing more than $200 hundred million in new exploration. This time, for oil.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s plan for the area is more than ten years old. Now, this federal agency, which is in charge of leases and regulations, is trying to catch up. A new plan would open more land to oil drilling. And that has people like archaeologist Paul Reed worried development will press further south. And even closer to Chaco.

“We have a tangible link to this past and that to me is critically important—and preserving the landscapes that go with Chaco are a huge part of that legacy,” he says. “If the development proceeds in an unregulated sense and piecemeal, Chaco will eventually become an island surrounded by modern oil and gas facilities literally pushing up against the boundaries of the park.”

Credit Laura Paskus

But just recently, oil prices started coming down. Way down. So, what does that mean for the Chaco and the San Juan Basin? Right now, nobody really knows for sure.

One of the big questions now is how to move oil out of the region – the BLM is considering an oil pipeline that would run from Highway 550 south down to Interstate-40

Funding for KUNM’s new series Drilling Deep - exploring the impacts of the oil and gas industry in northwestern New Mexico – comes from the New Venture Fund.

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