Exiting UNESCO: An Interview with Archaeologist Paul Reed


Kellam Throgmorton, PhD candidate in anthropology at Binghamton University.

Howdy from northwest New Mexico!

I am taking a quick break from dissertation fieldwork (two more weeks of mapping, then I’m done! I hope!) to write a MAPA blog post on the recent announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). While this issue does not directly affect my dissertation project in the same way that, say, massive cuts to the National Science Foundation might, it will nonetheless hamper archaeological and cultural preservation efforts in the region I work. This region is sometimes referred to as the Greater Chaco Landscape, and it covers the northwest corner of New Mexico as well as portions of the adjacent states of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.

“Exiting” UNESCO

This is not the first time the U.S has left UNESCO. In 1984 the U.S. withdrew its membership over a perceived leftist, anti-free market bias. It rejoined in 2002. A U.S. law that automatically cut funding to any U.N. organization that recognized Palestine as a member state triggered the most recent non-payment of dues, in 2013. At that point, the U.S. remained a member of UNESCO, though without any voting power. The current move is politically formalizing our exit by withdrawing our membership (ostensibly in protest of perceived anti-Israel bias by the organization).

What is UNESCO?

Like its parent organization, the United Nations, UNESCO was created in the aftermath of World War II. Cultural heritage is frequently targeted in war and conflict (for example, the partial destruction of Palmyra by ISIS), and UNESCO seeks strategies to prevent the use of cultural destruction as a weapon of war. It is also intended to promote peace, combat global poverty, and create sustainable economic development through a program of international cooperation on scientific and educational endeavors. Cultural heritage is a critical part of this mission—UNESCO sees heritage as a “positive and unifying force” with values including education, identity maintenance, and traditional knowledge.

How is UNESCO connected to the U.S. Southwest?

Bodies governing heritage love to make lists (e.g. the National Register of Historic Places in the U.S.), and UNESCO uses the World Heritage list to designated and manages places of cultural and natural heritage around the globe. Inclusion on the list is recognition that a site exhibits unique qualities and is “of outstanding value to humanity.”

There are ten World Heritage cultural sites within the United States and three of these are in the U.S. Southwest—Taos Pueblo, Mesa Verde National Park, and Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Chaco Canyon is somewhat unique among these in that the designation includes not just the Ancestral Pueblo structures located within the central Canyon, but several Chacoan sites in the surrounding region as well. The UNESCO designation recognizes that “Chaco Culture” is best understood and experienced at the landscape level. This is where UNESCO intersects with my research and with work that myself and others have been doing on the Greater Chaco Landscape. But that begs the question—what IS the Greater Chaco Landscape?

The Greater Chaco Landscape

There is a “quantum” quality to the Greater Chaco Landscape. Defining its boundaries can lead to cryptic statements like “to understand where Chaco can be found, you must first determine when Chaco is to be found….” The more precisely we try to define what counts as “Chacoan” the less certain we are about its extent and its social-historical trajectory. And there are wormholes: with the blink of a selenite mirror the moonrise at Chimney Rock Pueblo (southwest Colorado) can be known at Pueblo Alto (Chaco Canyon) nearly 90 miles away.

Great houses across the region replicate, in miniature, the canon of architectural traits and landscape modifications found within Chaco Canyon itself, which suggests a repetition of ceremonial practice and large scale political organization often referred as a “regional system.” Or is it that Chaco Canyon is simply a hypertrophic example of the standard Ancestral Pueblo community structure at the time? Did people even “know” they were Chacoans, living in a Chacoan landscape?!

Andrews Great House in the Red Mesa Valley. Great kiva to the left, great house to the right.

Andrews Great House in the Red Mesa Valley. Great kiva to the left, great house to the right.

These debates over the nature of the Greater Chaco landscape have fueled countless hours of graduate seminars and late night arguments in conference hotel bars. The most straightforward definition is that the Greater Chaco Landscape includes the northwest corner of New Mexico and smaller portions of the adjacent states of Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. Between AD 840 and 1140, communities that built great houses and great kivas flourished in at least 200 locations throughout this region, which covers nearly 50,000 square miles (that’s bigger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined).

These Chacoan communities are collectively referred to as “outliers” since they resemble the buildings in Chaco Canyon, but they “lie outside” Chaco Canyon (go to the Chaco Research Archive for a map). Most Chacoan communities covered an area of several square miles. Some communities were linked to each other by “road segments,” which are cleared linear features that can be identified with remote sensing and, in some cases, can be followed on the ground for miles. A system of rock features (“shrines”) on high places further integrated the Greater Chaco Landscape across large distances.

Chaco Culture as World Heritage Site

Tower kiva at Kin Klizhin, Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Tower kiva at Kin Klizhin, Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Chaco Culture NHP received World Heritage designation in 1987. The designation included the sites within Chaco Canyon itself (like Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and Penasco Blanco), as well as outlying park service units at Aztec Ruins, Kin Bineola, Kin Ya’a, and Pueblo Pintado. In addition, five outlying Chacoan sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management were included in the World Heritage listing—Casamero, Kin Nizhoni, Pierre’s, Twin Angels, and Halfway House. These five sites are a bit of a grab-bag of outlying Chacoan great houses. There are several outliers which are more impressive than these five, but I assume the fact that they are on federal land (as opposed to Navajo Nation or other tribal lands) meant they could be jointly administered along with the National Park Service holdings at Chaco Canyon.

Chaco has recently garnered a lot of attention as oil and gas development increases near the National Park and several of the World Heritage units, particularly Twin Angels, Halfway House, and Pierre’s. The development has created tensions between environmentalists, the Bureau of Land Management, Navajo National tribal members and allotment holders, other New Mexico tribes, the Bureau of Land Management, and archaeologists.

Archaeological Preservation Efforts and the Greater Chaco Landscape

Paul Reed (Archaeology Southwest)

Paul Reed, preservation archaeologists for the Tucson-based non-profit Archaeology Southwest.

One of the people currently engaged in preservation initiatives for the Greater Chaco Landscape is Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with the Tucson-based non-profit Archaeology Southwest. Paul lives in Taos, New Mexico, has over thirty years of experience working in New Mexico, and is a noted scholar on the archaeology of Chaco and its outliers. (Click here for a recent report from Archaeology Southwest on conservation efforts within the Greater Chaco Landscape).

Paul gave me one of my first archaeology jobs (lithics analysis in El Malpais National Monument…which I’m still working on…can’t seem to move on from that first project!); he and I have gotten into all sorts of trouble together over the past decade. On a recent visit to several Chacoan outliers we got to talking about the ongoing efforts to protect the Greater Chaco Landscape, and how the politically-charged departure of the U.S. from UNESCO might affect those efforts. I emailed Paul some follow-up questions, which are presented below.

Kellam: Who are the principal constituents, stakeholders, and advocates with relationships to the Greater Chaco Landscape?

Paul: As you might expect, a number of diverse groups constitute primary stakeholders for the Greater Chaco Landscape. Lands across the GCL are managed by a number of different entities including the Farmington Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Navajo Nation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) – Navajo Area Office in Gallup, the State of New Mexico, and a variety of private interests.

Beyond the land-managing agencies, other stakeholders include Navajo allotment holders (both local and non-local) and local residents, Puebloan peoples descended from the builders of Chaco and other Pueblo sites, Navajo chapter officials from the local area, Navajo activist groups, local Euroamerican ranchers, local and regional environmental groups, archaeologists, other preservationists, and members of the general public.

Kellam: What threats currently face the Greater Chaco Landscape?

Paul: To begin, I think it is fair to say that the largest single threat to the GCL is energy development. The ancient Chacoan landscape has been impacted tremendously since energy development began in the early-mid-20th century. Although the impacts from coal and uranium mining across this landscape have been considerable, our current focus is on the effects of oil-gas development across the GCL.


Map showing land ownership status surrounding Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. It is a checkerboard of BLM, tribal trust, tribal allotment.

This is not the place for a review of energy-related impacts to the GCL since the 1930s. Rather, I want to focus on the challenge we are currently struggling with – the latest oil boom in the San Juan Basin. The boom began in late 2011, as energy companies started to drill wells into the Mancos-Gallup Shale formation. This formation is roughly one mile below the surface and the oil (and some gas) is released by the process known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Fracking involves the injection of various chemicals in a salt-water solution that fractures the geologic strata at depth, allowing the mineral resource to migrate and be pumped to the surface. Fracking into the Mancos-Gallup Shale has allowed the exploitation of oil-gas resources previously not reachable. Thus, the success of this approach in late 2011 and early 2012 lead to a small boom in the San Juan Basin. By 2014, more than 100 wells has been punched into the Mancos-Gallup Shale and it was clear to most that the “exploration” phase of work had evolved into full-scale production. In 2014, Farmington BLM concluded that their 2003 Resource Management Plan (RMP), which had not anticipated fracking and horizontal drilling (which also came on strong doing the boom), was inadequate and in need of amendment.

Thus, Farmington BLM began the process of amending the 2003 RMP. BIA joined this planning process effort in 2016 and the draft RMP amendment and Environmental Impact Statement is expected by mid-2018.


Kellam: The sites included in the World Heritage listing are found across the San Juan Basin. What special challenges exist for managing a cultural landscape as opposed to a discrete monument?

Paul: The largest single challenge in managing the Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins-related World Heritage sites is their dispersed locations and multiagency, intersecting jurisdictions. Discrete national monuments or parks in the USA are managed by single agencies (National Park Service, BLM, or Forest Service), often with input from other groups. Although these entities have their own challenges, they pale in comparison to the multi-million acre GCL.

As I understand it, NPS and BLM separately management their components of the Chacoan World Heritage sites, although they have frequent contact.

Kellam: What actions are currently being taken to protect the Greater Chaco Landscape?

Paul: Archaeology Southwest and its partners are working toward protection of the GCL in multiple ways: 1) continued close engagement with BLM and BIA as the amended management plan and EIS are being completed late this year and in early 2018; 2) close coordination with the All Pueblo Council of Governors and Navajo Nation as these groups pursue greater protections across the GCL; 3) fieldwork and GIS analysis that will result in a specific set of recommendations to the Agencies to protect additional cultural sites and ancient communities; 4) coordination with US Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan on this issue; 5) a recommendation to the Agencies that a 10-mile cultural protection zone around Chaco Canyon be excluded from future oil-gas development (a temporary moratorium is in place while the management plan and EIS are in process); 6) continued, intensive engagement with the media and the public to keep folks updated on our struggle to protect the GCL.

Kellam: Some people might say “well, these sites are being mitigated under Section 106, so what’s the big deal?” Is there an alternative to simply dealing with the Greater Chaco Landscape using Section 106?

Paul: In brief, Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (as amended) calls for the assessment of historic properties for eligibility to and potential inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Identified cultural resources are evaluated under four criteria and a determination is made if adverse effects will result from a proposed development project (including, for example, an oil well pad and pipeline). The primary approach is to avoid potentially Register-eligible sites through project redesign, i.e. sites are typically avoided by construction activities. Occasionally, additional work through archaeological testing or excavation is necessary to mitigate effects on cultural properties.

Because of this “identify and avoid” policy, thousands of sites have been avoided over the last 40 years and, yet, serious development has happened across the West. Although the avoidance and relative protection of cultural resources is a good thing, for the GCL and many other areas, the result of this policy is a highly fragmented and severely impacted cultural landscape. Archaeological sites and Traditional Cultural Places (important to Native American groups) across the GCL have become essentially protected islands in a sea of industrial, oil-gas development. Although many of the individual sites survive on the landscape, the connections between these sites has been severed forever. For Chacoan communities, the viewsheds and the soundscapes that were an integral part have been impacted (see Van Dyke 2017).

Part of Archaeology Southwest’s efforts over the last couple years have focused on identifying Chacoan communities that could benefit from a more holistic, landscape approach to the management of oil-gas development. This approach would require larger tracts of discrete, ancient communities to be avoided by oil-gas and other developments. We believe this would allow for at least a few remaining ancient Chacoan communities to be preserved at a landscape level.

Kellam: Has the change in presidential administration resulted in federal land managing agencies shifting their priorities?

Paul: This question could produce a very, very long answer. The short answer is that we are beginning to see a seismic shift in the way Federal agencies manage public lands. The Trump administration has made clear that energy development is the no. 1 priority for public lands. The buzz phrase they use is energy dominance:

“Sound energy policy begins with the recognition that we have vast untapped domestic energy reserves right here in America. The Trump Administration will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans. We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/america-first-energy)

We at Archaeology Southwest, together with our partners (The Wilderness Society, National Parks and Conservation Assoc., and the National Trust for Historic Preservation), are very concerned about national policies that will put energy extraction at the top of the list and result in widespread, significant impacts to the environmental and cultural landscapes of the West.

Kellam: What kinds of benefits does Chaco receive for being a World Heritage site?

Paul: There are few tangible, financial benefits that accompany the World Heritage designation for the Chacoan sites. However, the less direct benefits are quite substantial. The World Heritage sites in New Mexico, including Chaco Canyon, rely on marketing, among other approaches, to encourage both domestic and foreign tourists to visit. The World Heritage tag is a huge draw, particularly for foreign tourists. Many tour groups use the World Heritage marker when they create tours. Increases in visitation to Chaco and Mesa Verde can be correlated with their World Heritage designations.

Kellam: How might the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO affect the efforts to preserve the Greater Chaco Landscape? Is this mainly an issue of “bad optics” and political posturing, or will ongoing efforts to preserve the GCL be hampered?

Paul: It is difficult to know what impact the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO may have on our efforts to protect the GCL. It certainly is not good news but for nearly 10 years, the U. S. has not paid into the UNESCO fund for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, the U.S. has pledged to keep some level of engagement in UNESCO:

“The United States indicated to the Director General its desire to remain engaged with UNESCO as a non-member observer state in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms, and promoting scientific collaboration and education.” (https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/10/274748.htm)

The withdrawal is a significant political problem for the U.S. But, those of us who are working to protect Chaco Canyon and the GCL will not be deterred by this bad decision. We hope that the situation can be reversed in early 2021.

Kellam: UNESCO considers World Heritage sites to “belong to all the peoples of the world.” Chaco is ancestral to many Native American tribes in the US Southwest, but certainly not to Euro-Americans. Are there ways in which the “globalism” of the World Heritage designation is problematic?

Paul: I think the answer to this question depends on one’s point of view. Globalism, in my view, refers to the larger perspective on the world and the idea that everyone on the planet is a global citizen, in addition to being affiliated with individual nation-states, and more local communities.

The “global” ownership component of World Heritage sites is not a threat nor a challenge to the ancestry and history of individual component sites or communities. There is no doubt that Chaco Canyon was home to people ancestral to modern Puebloan communities in New Mexico and Arizona. Archaeologists and other scholars recognize and honor this fact. Moreover, the World Heritage designation signifies the importance of Chaco Canyon within the context of cultural sites worldwide and enhances the value to the many, distinct constituents.

Kellam: What level of public involvement exists in the management of the Greater Chaco Landscape? How can archaeologists assist raising public involvement?

Paul: I would say that there is a fairly high level of public input into the management of the GCL in 2017. As BLM and BIA have worked toward an amended management plan and EIS, the public has been given the opportunity to comment at various stages. To date, public comments to the agencies have topped the 50,000 mark over the last 3 years. I expect this number to perhaps double by the time the plan and EIS are finished in 2018. Beyond this, Archaeology Southwest and its partners have put on numerous public events to bring people out and increase involvement in this process. We also use social media (Twitter and Facebook) and our website (archaeologysouthwest.org) to promote protection of the GCL on a regular basis, with at least monthly updates.

Archaeologists can do a number of things to increase awareness and public involvement: 1) promote protection of the GCL in their public and social media lives; 2) support Native American tribes, other archaeologists, and environmental and preservation groups in these efforts; 3) write to their Federal, State, and local leaders to encourage protection of cultural resources locally, and in places like Chaco Canyon; 4) contribute money, volunteer time, or both to efforts to promote preservation of endangered cultural sites.

Some Final Thoughts From Kellam

So, it probably remains to be seen what the broader impact of the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO will be. Nonetheless, it is both a symbol and symptom of the “America First” ideology embraced by the current administration. As with ideologies in general, this one serves to mask the reality of particular relations. In regards to the Great Chaco Landscape, energy development is the sector where political ideology meets archaeological sites and cultural landscapes (as Paul points out above).

A derrick at Twin Angels Pueblo on the North Road from Chaco.

A derrick at Twin Angels Pueblo on the North Road from Chaco.

Throughout the previous administration, the rallying cry of the dominant energy ideology was “energy independence” and development was framed as a matter of national security. Energy industry employees would say to me “we gotta get off foreign oil and keep prices low for American consumers!”—as if the energy industry worked directly for American consumers (that sounds a lot like nationalized industry, which we most certainly DO NOT have in the U.S.!). Instead the energy industry is an expansive global entanglement of private corporations, government policy (foreign and domestic), and international marketplaces. In addition, the U.S. is now a net exporter of refined petroleum products and natural gas.

The current “American First” ideology masks relations in a similar way, framing energy development as first-and-foremost a domestic issue and a public good, rather than a globally entangled industry that let’s private corporations make use of the public commons. But it does so in particularly “integralist” terms by collapsing “American” to a relatively narrow slice of U.S. history and demography (that is, unsurprisingly, overwhelming white, capitalist, and Christian). Rather than framing energy development in the inclusive terms of “independence” it excludes alternatives to unfettered energy development as insidiously un-American.

The result is we are witnessing an attempt to reinterpret the meaning of American cultural landscapes through attacks on the legal and regulatory framework that preserves them. Overtly, this takes the form of legislation like Rep. Bob Bishop’s (R-Utah) attack on designating cultural landscapes using the Antiquities Act.

But it also takes the form of memoranda, which are executive directives that govern the day-to-day actions of federal agencies. They can range from how “resources” are defined to how federal policy is implemented at the district level. For example, what does it mean when the Federal Land Policy and Management Act directs agencies to “protect archaeological values”? Presidential and agency memoranda give wide latitude to how a statement like this might be implemented in practice by an agency office like the Farmington BLM. In the case of the Greater Chaco Landscape, a landscape recognized by UNESCO as a dispersed World Heritage site, I doubt that it includes foregoing lease sales, limiting surface occupancy by energy infrastructure, or declaring “enough is enough” within Chacoan communities that have already been fragmented by 100 years of energy development.

Kellam is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Binghamton University. He has worked in the US Southwest since 2005. Kellam’s dissertation research addresses the entanglements of landscape, architecture, and society during political transformation. Through the Summer and Fall of 2017 he conducted fieldwork on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation and in Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, investigating the origins and development of Chacoan society in the Ancestral Pueblo world ca. A.D 840-1020. In addition, Kellam is interested in how landscape and heritage are mobilized in contemporary political struggle. He has been a frequent commentator on public lands policy and cultural resources in the U.S. West, with essays in the MAPA blog and other forums.

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