The case for Chimney Rock
Push to create national monument starts anew

In spite of the recent legislative shake-up, the effort to make Chimney Rock Archeological Area a national monument is rolling again. Advocates of the bill feel it will give added protection to the historic area and boost tourism throughout Southwest Colorado./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Adam Curren

A mere 30 minutes east of Durango is an archeological wonder – Chimney Rock. The 4,700-acre site is inside the San Juan National Forest and is recognized as perhaps the most significant historical site managed by the entire U.S. Forest Service, according to the federal agency. Whether Chimney Rock will gain permanent and lasting protection remains an unknown.

Nearly a thousand years ago, the twin spires of Chimney Rock beckoned the ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians to this mystical area. Archeologists believe that Chimney Rock integrated with the Anasazi’s larger Chacoan regional community as an extended alliance. At that time, Chaco Canyon served as a ceremonial center to unify the dispersed populations of the Southwest through ceremonial rituals. Progressively, the Chaco people established a remote outpost called The Great House Pueblo at the base of Chimney Rock, just south of the twin spires. Built from six million stones, 5,000 logs and 25,000 tons of earth and clay, the building blocks for the Great House were painstakingly hauled 1,000 feet up from the valley floor.

The vast acreage of Chimney Rock Archaeological Area contains prehistoric structures built by ancestors of the modern Pueblo tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, and Jemez. Abounding with prehistoric structures and a smaller number of partially-restored structures, these area settlements were built between 950 and 1100 A.D. Chimney Rock was marked by subsistence farming, construction of semi-permanent dwellings, and the development of socially integrative structures for community rituals.

In 1988, McKim Malville, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Colorado, spotlighted Chimney Rock’s importance in terms of archaeoastronomy. He theorized that the early people likely used the pinnacles of Chimney Rock to observe astronomical events called “lunar standstills,” which occur every 18.6 years. The signs of this magnificent enigma are when the moon appears to rise in the exact same spot three nights simultaneously.

A modest 10 pages, the Chimney Rock National Monument Act of 2010 (S. 3303) was introduced in May of last year. Original sponsors of the bill include former Representative John Salazar (D-CO) and current State Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO). In a 2010 Congressional testimony Bennet stated, “Only two other places in the world exist where archeologists have found evidence that ancient people used stone structures to mark a lunar standstill. Stonehenge is one of them.”

If passed, the bill would designate the 4,726 acres surrounding Chimney Rock as a national monument and preserve, protect, and restore the nationally significant archeological, cultural, scientific, and scenic resources. The site would remain a unit of the San Juan National Forest, and Native American tribes would retain access for traditional and cultural uses, according to Bennet’s Press Secretary, Michael Amodeo. “We’re hoping we can get it passed this year. It’s a good bill that has local support and will help Southwest Colorado’s economy and give Chimney Rock much deserved recognition,” he said.

Since Salazar’s November departure, Bennet has picked up the ball and is heading towards the goal. “Chimney Rock has incredible historical and cultural significance, yet the site lacks a designation equal to that stature,” Bennet said. “This discrepancy is why countless preservation groups got involved with Chimney Rock. I believe passage of this bill would provide a much needed increase in tourism and economic development in Southwest Colorado.” The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the group credited with initiating the national monument push, has said that designation would be a win-win and attract public attention and increase heritage tourism to Archuleta County and the Four Corners area.

In testimony before Congress in May of last year, former Archuleta County Commissioner Robert Moomaw shared the opinion. “The legislation would not only protect a nationally significant site, but it would bring a much needed boost to the Four Corners region,” he said. “Regrettably the national downturn hit our area very hard, with the construction and real estate segments of our economy essentially disappearing. While there’s no silver bullet to fix our region’s economic woes, the board of county commissioners feels the new national monument would be a tremendous help.”

Though Chimney Rock made its way into the public lands omnibus package, that package failed to pass through the “Lame Duck” Congress prior to Jan. 1. “It didn’t happen, so we’re back to square one,” said Nancy Green, of the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association. However, Bennet plans to reintroduce the bill to the newly appointed 112th Congress. “Chimney Rock is one of Senator Bennet’s top public lands priorities,” Amodeo said. “We believe if the bill came up for a straight up or down vote, it would pass with little opposition.”

Andrew Gulliford, president of the San Juan Basin Archeological Society, shared his hopes that the new Congress and Salazar’s successor, Scott Tipton, see the wisdom of designating Chimney Rock as a national monument. “If the bill were passed, there would likely be an increase in local budget as well as additional tourism to the surrounding area,” he said. “Ultimately the economic impact would be positive. I would hope that Rep. Tipton recognizes the public’s interest in this bill and assist in its passage.”



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