Across the nation there are many places to drill for oil and gas, but there is only one center for the ancient Ancestral Puebloan culture. That is Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico, a World Heritage site that is threatened by encroaching oil and gas development. How unfortunate that just as oil prices plummet and the fracking frenzy fizzles, the momentum of a decades-long energy boom in the San Juan Basin endangers one of this continent’s greatest cultural mysteries.
Chaco Canyon is like no place else. High, dry, with almost no surface water and few trees, Chaco remains isolated and remote. Yet in this barren landscape the Ancestral Puebloan people once flourished. From 900 to 1150 A.D., they built an urban complex out of hand-quarried stone. Their buildings required over 100,000 trees as roof beams for storage rooms, habitation rooms and ceremonial spaces defined as great kivas. The ruins have remained standing for many centuries.
But underneath the ground may lay millions of cubic feet of natural gas. Currently, over 20 different oil, gas and pipeline companies support thousands of wells in the region. Yet modern oil-well technology endangers an ancient culture whose wisdom we still do not fully understand, just as climate change—exacerbated by methane leaks—may endanger our modern culture as well.
A thousand years ago, Chaco Canyon bustled with building activity. Then, probably because of environmental factors, including a 75-year-long drought, the Puebloan clans abandoned their homes and migrated elsewhere. Rooms were walled up. Kiva roofs burned. Living on the edge in such a dry place had become untenable. Water sources dried up; trade networks ceased. Food had to be carried from great distances, and the ceremonial focus of Chacoan communities collapsed. The bright, intense light of Chaco, which flared for 150 years, went out.
Now, flares are back, but instead of a brilliant cultural synthesis, what is flaring across the San Juan Basin is the nation’s biggest methane “hot spot,” one that NASA can see from outer space.
Global warming threatens us all, and yet near Chaco, over $2 billion worth of natural gas leaks skyward annually. Production companies flare off their wells because they want the oil, not the gas. Recently, I watched three 24-hour-a-day flares spewing carbon dioxide just up the road from an elementary school. It was winter, yet I felt the heat. What a waste.
We are preparing to ravage a place before we know all its archaeological secrets. Every decade, more is revealed about Chaco’s complex culture. In the 1970s, for example, low-flying reconnaissance flights gave us the first hints of a vast Chaco road system, with well-made roads about 30 feet wide and laid out in straight lines for miles. And yet the Chacoans had no draft animals or wheeled carts. In the 1980s, scientists proved that one of the world’s only lunar calendars set to the 18.6 year cycle of the moon had been etched on boulders near the top of Chaco’s Fajada Butte.
In the 1990s, Anna Sofaer and the Solstice Project verified that Chaco’s buildings had been constructed to align with solstices and equinoxes of the sun as well as to lunar cycles. In the last decade, using electron microscopes to analyze smashed pottery sherds from drinking vessels, scientists determined that during ceremonies, Chacoans drank chocolate from cacao beans traded on foot north from Meso-America.
Who knows what else we might learn about one of the world’s great cultures? Unfortunately, our modern addiction to oil is damaging the landscape faster than it can be studied. Sofaer is creating a new film about these ecological threats. She says, “We filmed on the ground the ravages of many newly constructed roads, pipelines and well pads transforming the landscape east and north of Chaco Canyon. Some sites were within 15 miles of the canyon, where we found archaeological artifacts. On overcast nights the skies above this area are invaded by an eerie reddish glow from the fracking rigs.”
With oil and gas revenues falling, this is a good time for Congress to draw a protective boundary around Chaco and agree to full mineral withdrawal of adjacent oil and gas leases on BLM and Navajo allotment lands.
Do we have the wisdom and political will to suspend oil and gas leasing in parts of the San Juan Basin? I hope so, because by saving Chaco cultural sites we are also saving ourselves. If not, the methane leaks and flaring gas wells, like a supernova star bursting across the heavens, will be the sign of our own expanding but dying civilization.
Andy Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Colorado and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org