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Rockfall fears prompt closure of campsites at Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Official: No rockfall imminent, but safety is a concern

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The park's Gallo Campground has had 17 of its 49 sites closed.
  • People who have reserved one of the campsites in question can opt for a refund or reserve another site.
  • A rockfall at Chaco in 1941 destroyed 30 rooms at the Pueblo Bonito.

FARMINGTON — While park officials emphasize there is no imminent danger, they have become concerned enough about a potential rockfall hazard to close several campsites at Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

The sites are located in the park's Gallo Campground. People who have reserved one of the sites are being offered a refund or the option of reserving a remaining open site.

Park officials issued a press release alerting potential visitors about the situation on Jan. 8. Nathan Hatfield, the chief of interpretation at Chaco and at Aztec Ruins National Monument, said Jan. 9 the campground has 49 sites, and 17 of those are located in the defined rockfall hazard zone.

Hatifield said a 2015 study commissioned by the park identified the problem and gave the park some statistical data about the level of hazard it presented. Park officials decided not to act on the situation then, but they have grown increasingly uncomfortable about the hazard since then, Hatfield said.

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A rockfall near near the Una Vida greathouse at Chaco Culture National Historic Park in 2006 is pictured. A park official says such events are part of the natural cycle in a canyon.

The press release cites the longstanding potential for rockfalls at the park, explaining that it has been a hazard at Chaco for centuries.

"The ancient Chacoans even made efforts to reduce the risk of potential rockfall damage at Pueblo Bonito," the release states, referring to the park's most prominent greathouse.

In 1941, according to the release, those fears were realized when Threatening Rock collapsed, destroying more than 30 of Pueblo Bonito's rooms. If those rooms had been occupied at the time of the collapse, the occupants would have been crushed, the release states.

Hatfield said that historic example and a growing concern for the welfare of everyone at the park prompted the move to close the campsites, even though park officials said they have no indication a rockfall is close to occurring.

"It's just not worth it," Hatfield said. "Even if it's not a good chance, it's still a chance, and we can't put park visitors or volunteers in a bad situation."

Hatfield said there has been a culture shift in the National Park Service in recent years to avoid allowing anyone to get in harm's way.

"Unfortunately, there have been fatalities among our employees (at the National Park Service) at a higher rate than at other agencies in the last decade or so," he said.

Hatfield emphasized that the rockfall danger is not a man-made issue.

"It is an ongoing natural thing when you have these sandstone cliffs and temperature conditions we have out here with freezing and thawing that can expedite the chances of this happening," he said. "It's part of the natural life cycle in a canyon."

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Park officials are studying the best way to deal with the situation over the long term, he said. That includes a handful of potential approaches.

"What we'll have to do is, we'll have to look at what it would take to make the existing spots safe," he said. "If we can determine the cost associated with that, we will weigh that against the cost of trying to find new locations for those campsites. It might be an easy fix or might be too expensive."

Hatfield said that process will involve extensive research and study, and isn't likely to be completed quickly.

"You have to be careful, because you can't put campsites in archaeologically sensitive areas," he said.

If officials determine that is their best alternative, it might prove to be no small feat, Hatfield noted.

"That can be tough at Chaco," he said. "Most of the park is in a sensitive area. If we need to find some new campsites, we can. But it will take some time and effort."

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Hatfield said park officials have heard from several people over the past several days who had reserved the campsites in question. The government's park reservations website, recreation.gov, is only reporting to visitors that the sites are closed because of a safety issue, and that has prompted a round of concerned callers. Chaco officials are doing their best to allay the fears of callers and explaining the situation in detail, Hatfield said.

"Obviously, they're disappointed, but we're telling them, 'Listen, we don’t want to put you in a situation where you could get hurt or worse,'" he said. "We're giving them the option of either finding another available campsite or making reservations to stay at another nearby facility. It's difficult, but we hope everyone understands it's the right thing to do."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.