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Pueblo Bonita at Chaco Canyon National Historic Park.

CHACO CANYON — An effort by San Juan County to improve the 16-mile dirt road to Chaco Culture National Historical Park has raised questions about whether it would permanently change the rural site.

Keith Johns, San Juan County chief executive officer, called the road "rough and dangerous" and said the washboard conditions cause accidents, including one that he personally witnessed while driving on it. He added that the county has a responsibility to keep the road safe or one day someone could blame the county for choosing not to improve a road it recognized as potentially hazardous.

"The only thing (paving) takes away is a dangerous trip, and I think it's a good thing," he said.

David Keck, public works administrator, said San Juan County wants to chip-seal the road. That means layering it with a liquid asphalt product and chips, which will keep the road from degrading in weather conditions. The county already used state and local funding to chip-seal the first 3 miles. Federal funding would help complete the road, but there is no clear timeline on when that may happen.

People who visit Chaco Canyon, which has a turn-off 48 miles south of Bloomfield off U.S. 550, use the road — but so do several American Indian residents who have allotments in the area, Keck said. Furthermore, it feeds into approximately 350 miles of roads spread throughout the area. He could not say how many drivers regularly use the road.

U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., earmarked $800,000 to improve the road in 2005, at the time saying he hoped it would benefit transportation in the Four Corners area. Udall could not be reached for comment on Friday. The federal funds are scheduled to be dispersed over a five-year period.

But workers at Chaco Culture National Historical Park worry an improved road could increase traffic to the site, which they say is near capacity with the 60,000 visitors who come each year. Before the road is paved, the park needs to conduct a carrying capacity study and may need to ask U.S. Congress for funds to upgrade the site, they said.

"We want to make sure that, should the road be paved, we have the information we need to make sure we can adequately protect the Chacoan sites and try to do whatever we can to keep the visitor experience as unique and beneficial to the visitor as it is right now," said Russ Bodnar, chief of interpretation at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Chaco Canyon was a major center of Puebloan Indian culture between 850 and 1250 A.D. The park itself strives to preserve the ancient Chacoan sites.

Bodnar described the park as different from most others because it is more difficult to reach. Consequently, people who make the journey seem to appreciate it more, and the road contributes to the adventure.

Bodnar recalled how summer rains have flooded washes and stranded visitors at the park for several hours.

"It adds to the whole aura of Chaco being a place you have to make an effort to get to, and you have to accept it on its own terms," he said.

Anson Wright, coordinator of the Chaco Alliance, a group dedicated to protecting the sites, said a paved road would encourage RV and bus traffic, which rarely occurs now. It would bring different visitors who might vandalize the ruins. Increased traffic could necessitate more rangers being present and visitors might not be able to have moments alone in the history, he said.

"At this point, the park is visited by people who know its significance and who are coming there to seriously experience a very unique archeological site and a sacred site as well," he said. "If the road is paved, RV traffic will increase and it will become a recreational site in which people come just for the day and drive in, and drive around and leave."

Wright sited a draft National Park Service study released in 2005 that assessed the effects of road improvements at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. It looked at seven comparable sites and examined how visitation increased after road improvements. The boost ranged from 42 percent at Canyonlands National Park at the Island in the Sky to 575 percent at Capitol Reef National Park.

Wright also said he thinks San Juan County wants to improve the road to increase tourism, which in turn could bring in more money.

But Johns said the county wants only to increase the road's safety. The park can continue to mange its resources how it chooses, limiting the number of people who can visit each day or increasing its rangers regardless of any action San Juan County takes, he said. Furthermore, the park belongs to the world and should be accessible to anyone who wants to visit.

"We're not trying to be mean and ornery at all. In fact, we thought we were doing something really good for folks," he said.

Lisa Meerts: lmeerts@daily-times.com