AZTEC — The Hopi refer to Chaco Canyon as "the place beyond the horizon." Because of increasing cost and staunch opposition to a road improvement plan, it will remain the place beyond chip sealing.
San Juan County commissioners voted Tuesday to pull the plug on a plan years in the making to pave and improve an 8.25-mile stretch of County Road 7950 leading to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Costs had risen to an estimated $1.2 million. County officials said they also encountered opposition from environmental groups and reluctant federal officials.
The Hopi, one of the tribes linked to the ancestral Puebloans who inhabited Chaco Canyon a millennium ago, were "just adamantly opposed to the project," said Dave Keck, the county's public works administrator.
Keck said Hopi representatives referred to a wash near the canyon as "a moat to keep people out."
San Juan County had been working to pave the road with asphalt and aggregate since the mid-1990s. The project received an $800,000 federal grant.
The county embarked on a costly and federally required environmental assessment that led to further disagreement.
The study cost $334,000, including $269,000 in county money.
San Juan County entered mediation with the National Parks Service, the Navajo Nation Department of Transportation and other groups, but to no avail.
Commissioners, along with Keck, expressed their frustration Tuesday at the project's failure.
"I have never in my life been involved with a project like that," said Commissioner Jim Henderson. "I think it's a disservice not only to the people of our county, but to the whole United States."
The road poses a safety hazard to visitors and residents, Henderson said.
County Executive Kim Carpenter said federal agencies stood in the way of completing the project.
"The Parks Service was also a player that did not show any kind of unconditional support for this project," he said. "That was evident in the meetings we had."
Frustrated commissioners briefly considered abandoning the road entirely, but they did not direct county staff to pursue that route.
Remaining federal funds of $350,000 to $380,000 will be rerouted to other county projects.
A Chaco Culture National Historical Park spokeswoman, Christine Czazasty, said visitors were split about the road.
"Some visitors love the way the road is, others would love to see it paved," she said.