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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Sitting on a windswept escarpment over Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the Petroglyphs National Monument where carvings were etched into giant boulders centuries ago by ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. Now local developers and city officials want to put a road through the Petroglyphs. The Department of Interior, which runs the site, says such a plan violates the laws protecting national parks. But the road may get a go-ahead from a special bill before Congress anyway. Richard Mahler reports from Albuquerque.


CURWOOD: Sitting on a windswept escarpment looming over Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the Petroglyphs National Monument. Thousands of ancient, sacred carvings were etched into rock faces there. Stick figures of deer, bear, rabbit, and the humpbacked flute player Kokopelli drawn centuries ago by ancestors of today's Pueblo people. The monument is located in an urban area. Homes are built right up to its eastern boundary. And one of the city's busiest streets, Paseo del Norte, dead-ends at the park. Local developers and city officials want a road built through the Petroglyphs to serve new homes under construction on the other side of the park. The Department of Interior says such a road would violate the laws protecting national monuments. But the road may get the go-ahead anyway, if a special bill before Congress passes. Richard Mahler reports.


WANAHKEE: Some of these are very, very old. And this, maybe a thousand, two thousand years old. Now once they're destroyed, once they're removed, defaced, that's it. That's one of a kind gone.

MAHLER: Bill Wanahkee walks among the black volcanic boulders of Petroglyph National Monument with a sad look in his eyes. The Native American activist feels sorrow for his ancestors, whose spirits and traditions are as much a part of these hills as the prickly pear and rabbit brush.

WANAHKEE: Our churches look like this. They're not enclosed, a lot of them are not enclosed. They're on top of mountains, in valleys, and just because we're not enclosed in a box the powers that be can't understand that once you start digging through here you're digging through sacred ground. If I asked you to build a road through your church, would you do it? I mean, is it okay with you? And then how come you do it with ours?

MAHLER: A few miles from where Wanahkee strolls, Bill Fuller is talking about roads and churches, too.

FULLER: This major Catholic church would disappear, and that church has over 5,000 members in it.

MAHLER: The President of the Paradise Hills Civic Association worries that if a shortcut is not built through the Petroglyphs, suburban growth will force expansion of his neighborhood's main street into a 6-lane thoroughfare.

FULLER: The Loews shopping centers and the Texaco station and it all stops at the end of the street there. That entire area would go. You'd end up with about 140 homes being removed. So you take that much damage to a community and, you know, that's why everybody's opposed to it out here.

(Sounds of hammering, a drill)

MAHLER: The problem is that Albuquerque is growing. Seven years ago, when it was created, Petroglyph National Monument was on the western fringe of the city, a place where suburbia and wilderness did not yet meet. Now, a 15,000- home subdivision called Black Ranch is planned for the other side of the Petroglyphs. Unless a short cut is built through the monument, commuters will have to snake through quiet, established communities like Paradise Hills. Larry Weaver is President of the West Side Coalition of Neighborhood Associations. He says local residents are being squeezed by forces beyond their control, with quality of life hanging in the balance.

WEAVER: We have set up a situation where there is a significant conflict of interest.
I think it sort of points out, you know, the lack of foresight given to planning, where we locate monuments, okay? It's -- I don't know that any one person or any one group can be found at fault, but there is a considerable amount of tension over this. The debate here, in my opinion, has turned very ugly. And once we had consensus on this. I just don't understand how it's broken down, but it has broken down.

MAHLER: For the moment, plans to build the shortcut are on hold, because Federal laws prohibit construction of new roads in national parks that do not serve park purposes. But New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici has introduced a bill in Congress that would allow the project to move forward.

(Trucks, construction sounds)

MAHLER: Critics say the shortcut is a perfect example of how uncontrolled growth is spoiling the landscape across the West. They say it is time to put the brakes on urban sprawl. Albuquerque's congestion can be eased, opponents argue, by improving existing roads and saying no to developers who want to create subdivisions in the desert west of the Petroglyphs. Ike Eastvold is a spokesman for the Community Coalition fighting the Paseo del Norte extension.

EASTVOLD: We're losing our air quality. We're having carnage on the highways from traffic fatalities and crippling accidents, and people are locked in their cars and they have no good alternatives besides driving one person per vehicle, and it's turning the urban fabric into a real nightmare. Something like Paseo del Norte, a 6-lane freeway to nowhere that does not serve the real growth needs of the West Side, much less the city, would promote leapfrog development.

MAHLER: Those in favor of the extension insist that growth beyond the Petroglyphs is inevitable, because the city is hemmed in on its 3 other sides by Indian reservations and national forests. Albuquerque's mayor says the project is the only way to avoid future gridlock on the city streets. But local Sierra Club official Julie Hicks points out that a primary reason Western cities are growing is because of the region's unique history and fragile beauty. The Petroglyph Park is a place many people treasure, not only Native Americans.

HICKS: As a resident of Albuquerque, I care very much for this particular monument. It, to me and to many others, makes up what New Mexico is all about. The Petroglyph National Monument hosts the largest number of petroglyphs near any urban area. It's very unique. It's a museum, per se, that we have right next to our city, right within our city as the city grows around it.

MAHLER: Senator Domenici would not make himself available for this story, but in a written statement supporting the shortcut he said, quote, "Hiding our heads in the sand is not an acceptable alternative. The monument does not exist in a vacuum." Senator Domenici says he has the votes needed to pass the measure, and that Congressional action could come soon. Construction of a road through Petroglyph National Monument could begin later this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Mahler in Albuquerque.



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