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Rocky Mountain Chapter

Chimney Rock: Our nation's next national monument?
—With your help, we have hope!

By Lauren Swain

Situated in southwest Colorado, about 20 miles west of Pagosa Springs, Chimney Rock Archaeological Area offers a doubly rewarding experience for visitors with its unique geological formations and extraordinary stone structures, built by the architects of an ancient civilization. Chimney Rock itself is one of two striking sandstone spires protruding from atop a majestic butte, 1000 feet above the Piedra River valley, where the ancestors of today's Hopi, Zuni, and other regional tribes raised their crops 1000 years ago. Each year, over 9000 visitors tour the elaborate complex of ceremonial kivas and dwellings, which were home to over 2000 people, from 850 - 1125 A.D. During that time, Chimney Rock was incorporated into the greater Chaco culture, centered in Chaco Canyon, 93 miles to the southwest. It became the northern and easternmost outpost of the vast Chacoan civilization that spread throughout the region.

Chimney Rock collage small.jpg
Photos courtesy of Joshua Ruschhaupt and Virginia Cramer

The Chacoan people were astronomers who observed an exciting phenomenon in the skies over Chimney Rock—one that visitors can still enjoy today. From the Great Pueblo, every 18.6 years, the full moon can be viewed rising up between the twin rock spires. Chimney Rock also boasts one of the darkest skies in all of Colorado, providing an excellent venue for stargazing and amateur astronomy.

RMC Director Joshua Ruschhaupt noted, "I visited Chimney Rock ­­­­in June, and was amazed at the wealth of cultural history, geologic intrigue, and astronomic significance this location had to ancient populations in today's southern Colorado. This is an American treasure in need of protection that meets or exceeds its priceless value, and the value we place on our history."

What Chimney Rock lacks and needs are the recognition, protection, and resources that an important and singular site like this merits. At this time, only two U.S. Forest Service staff are assigned to manage the area, in cooperation with the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association (CRIA), a volunteer group devoted to providing tours and other services to visitors. Interpretive signs at the site are becoming outdated and the structures need stabilization to prevent their deterioration over time. If permanent protection and preservation are not granted through national monument status, the site could fall into disrepair and be lost to visitors. Currently, the area is only open to the public from May 15 to September 30.

Earlier this year, Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and 3rd district Representative Scott Tipton, sent a letter to President Obama asking him to use his power under the Antiquities Act to designate Chimney Rock a national monument. And just last month, the Durango Herald reported that "sources" had "confirmed" that he would indeed do so. Please join forces with our local and national Sierra Club campaign and let President Obama know we support national monument designation by going to our My Piece of America action page.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates that national monument designation for Chimney Rock would bring $1.2 million of additional tourist revenue into the area each year. So giving recognition and protection to this historic and geological treasure is a win-win for everyone: culturally, environmentally and economically.

Roger Singer, Sierra Club Senior Regional Manager, and Alan Apt, Rocky Mountain Chapter Wilderness Chair, both contributed to this article.

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