Chaco Canyon: $3,000,000 government project bungled

Larry Barker

One Year Larry Barker Investigation

CHACO CANYON, NM (KRQE) – There’s something wrong in the rugged backcountry of Northwest New Mexico. But just getting there is a challenge.

“The thing that goes through a lot of people’s minds when they (travel there) is, wherein God’s name are we going? This place is out in the middle of nowhere,” says retired government employee Barbara West.

Leave the pavement south of Nageezi, follow a rutted dirt track, past the flash flood warnings, to one of the most important historical sites in the U.S., welcome to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Between 850 and 1250 A.D., Chaco Canyon was home to a thriving civilization.

“You will be blown away,” says Chaco’s former Chief of Cultural Resources, Dabney Ford. “You hit the canyon, you look at these astonishing monuments, and it’s just a huge surprise to people,” Ford says.

WATCH: 9-minute long video that shows excavation of Pueblo Bonito

Consider the largest ruin in the park. Pueblo Bonito was built over a thousand years ago. Using only primitive tools, skilled Anasazi craftsmen constructed an exceptionally intricate 800 room complex unequaled for its masonry and utilitarian architecture.

Pueblo Bonito was Chaco Canyon’s first construction project. Just down the road, you’ll find the remote canyon’s most recent undertaking, the spanking new $3,000,000 state of the art Chaco Canyon Visitor Center.

But where Pueblo Bonito is an example of pre-Columbian artistry and ingenuity, the National Park Service construction project is a case study in bureaucratic bungling.

“It’s a waste of money, and it’s just appalling,” says Chaco Canyon’s retired Cultural Resources Chief, Dabney Ford. 

“It’s the most disrespectful thing I think I’ve ever seen, Ford says. “Why would we do that?”

In an internal Park Service report obtained by KRQE News 13 through a Freedom of Information request, Chaco’s Museum Curator, Wendy Bustard, wrote, “It galls and embarrasses me that the (National Park Service) looks so incompetent.”

So what happened? You need to go back. Way back.

The first organized archaeological expedition of Chaco began in 1896 when pioneer explorer Richard Wetherill led a team of excavators to dig for artifacts at Pueblo Bonito. Over the last 100 years, organized expeditions have dug through a thousand years of debris to uncover Chaco artifacts, clues to the daily life of the long-gone Anasazi civilization.

Video: Excavating Indian Pueblos at Chaco Canyon

Jim Shaffner talks about his grandfather’s expedition of Chaco Canyon.

“There’s no gold. There’s no diamonds. There’s nothing like that. But they are exquisite. They’re the gems of a thousand years ago,” says Dabney Ford.

Want to see some of those stunning relics? You won’t find them in Chaco Canyon.  Archaeologists unearthed some 2,000,000 artifacts buried in the ruins. However, all of it, the trade goods, the pottery, the tools, the carved jewelry, the turquoise, was crated up and carted away.

“The artifacts from Chaco Canyon fill up museums on the East Coast,” says former Chaco Canyon Park Superintendent Barbara West.

Because most of Chaco’s archaeological expeditions were sponsored by east coast museums and universities, those institutions took possession of the artifacts. That’s why Chaco’s rare antiquities are hidden away in places like New York’s Natural History Museum and The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Some artifacts are stored at the University of New Mexico’s Hibben Center. None are at Chaco Canyon.

The National Park Service wanted to bring those relics back home. As part of a multi-million dollar, decade long project, a new Chaco Canyon Visitor Center was designed to put excavated antiquities on public display, most for the first time.  A climate-controlled Exhibit Room would showcase almost 4,000 priceless artifacts on loan from museums across the U.S.

The space was opened to the public in 2017. But if you come to Chaco Canyon expecting to see rare antiquities once buried here, you’ll be disappointed. The one thing missing from the Exhibit Hall are the exhibits. Oops.

When asked how many original artifacts are on display in Chaco Canyon’s new Visitor Center, Chaco’s Cultural Resources Chief Aron Adams says, “Currently we have none on display.”

“There’s an empty room with cases in it, no artifacts,” says former Park Superintendent Barbara West.

When asked if someone at the Park Service bungled this project, Chaco’s retired Cultural Resources Chief Dabney Ford responded simply, “That’s right.”

Despite teams of government planners, architects, and contractors, the Park Service committed a colossal blunder.  And the focus is on the new building’s heating and air conditioning, or, HVAC, system.

“(The HVAC system) functions but it does not work properly,” says Chaco’s Aron Adams. 

Instead of regulating temperature, the Visitor Center building often is hot in summer and cold in winter. After spending $365,000 trying to troubleshoot the HVAC system, the Park Service figured out it had installed the wrong equipment for Chaco’s harsh New Mexico climate.

An Independent Consulting Engineer concluded, “The design of the existing HVAC system and controls is incapable of consistently maintaining the temperature and relative humidity requirements of the exhibit room.”  

Why is this important? Chaco’s fragile artifacts are a thousand years old. In order to display them, museum standards require strict temperature and humidity controls.

PHOTOS: Chaco Canyon artifacts

Because the installed HVAC system is unreliable, the Park Service had to pull the plug on its world-class artifact exhibit. Museum loan agreements, years in the making, were canceled and the priceless Chaco relics that were dug up there will remain in storage back east.

All those specially designed display cases in the Visitor Center Exhibit Room are empty. In an internal report, Chaco Museum Curator Wendy Bustard called it “…a massive black eye in the museum community.” 

“I think the Park Service is to blame,” says former Park Superintendent Barbara West. “I think the American public deserves a lot better. … Without artifacts, they’re being cheated of the whole experience of Chaco. The people who were there had extraordinary skill, and you can’t understand that skill unless you see the things they made,” West said.

“Chaco wasn’t built in a day nor was it built perfectly the first time around,” says newly named Park Superintendent Denise Robertson. “That evolved over time, and perhaps mistakes were made in which we will own those mistakes,” Robertson said.

National Park Service memos obtained by KRQE News 13 show the HVAC problems were detected more than three years ago. However, since then the Park Service has made virtually no effort to repair or replace the defective HVAC equipment. 

“We’re working with the Regional Office to get a team of experts out to evaluate the system,” Park Superintendent Robertson said. Robertson adds she does not know why the Regional Office didn’t evaluate the HVAC problem years ago.

“The sheer remoteness of Chaco (makes it) difficult to get folks out here to take a look at things and to troubleshoot,” Robertson says. “We don’t know exactly what the problems are so it’s hard to guess what that would cost,” according to Robertson. 

Although there are no artifacts in Chaco Canyon, the public can at least read about them in the Visitor Center Gift Shop.

“If (we can) create a Space Force we can certainly heat a fifteen hundred square foot room in Chaco Canyon,” Dabney Ford says.

“The buck stops with me,” Denise Robertson says. “I’m the Park’s Superintendent, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that the project is done and that the artifacts are taken care of in perpetuity.”

How to view artifacts at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology

People in New Mexico can see Chaco Canyon artifacts at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, which is located at 500 University Blvd. NE Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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