Administrative History
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The La Mesa fire of 1977 provided another watershed in natural resource management at Bandelier. No one understood the historic role of natural fire in the region. Every eight to twelve years, natural fires would clear different areas on the plateau. Over time, this pattern created a mosaic of burned areas, leading to collections of trees of different age classes. Among mixed conifer environments like that of the Pajarito Plateau, this kind of burning led to a healthy ecosystem, but for the previous one hundred years, fire suppression remained the dominant mode of fire management for individuals and Federal agencies.

The Mesa fire in 1977 also inspired innovations in resource management. Fire-fighting oeprations threatened archeological resources in the burn area. Archeologists and fire-fighters worked in concert to fight the fire without damaging subsurface remains.

By the 1970s, a process of changing attitudes towards fire within the Park Service had begun. Scientists understood that the accumulated fuel loads of a long period of suppression presented a real danger to the resources of park areas. "With fire," Dr. Milford R. Fletcher asserted, "you can pay me now or you can pay me later." The idea of a controlled, human-induced fire to clear out areas of high fuel load gained credence. By 1977, some natural parks such as Yellowstone and Sequoia had controlled fire programs in place. These programs generally allowed natural fires to burn within boundaries that fire specialists predetermined. If the fires exceeded certain prescribed conditions, then the Park Service would respond. Otherwise, the fire simply burned on with careful monitoring.

Despite a growing body of scientific evidence, people who had fought fires all their lives still resisted the idea. Fire had always been anathema—particularly to people in the arid Southwest—and a program that allowed fires to burn unchecked violated every principle they knew. Yet the scientists had considerable influence. In the spring of 1977, Regional Director John Cook approved a controlled burn program for the La Mesa area. Ironically, the fire started the month before the program was scheduled to begin.

La Mesa fire
The La Mesa fire occurred during June of 1977. Large portions of the Upper Canyon and Frijoles Mesa area were destroyed by the fire, as were extensive areas beyond the boundaries of the monument. Because of the large number of archaeological sites within the area of the fire, archaeologists from the Park Service Regional Office in Santa Fe and the School of American Research joined fire-fighters in front of the bulldozers on the fire lines. This extraordinary effort resulted in the protection of numerous cultural resources that might otherwise have been damaged or destroyed.

The La Mesa fire provided the Park Service with vast quantities of new information about fire. Terralene Foxx, a contract researcher, had set up vegetative plots to document the differences between areas that had been burned with some degree of frequency and those that had not. The fire burned all of her plots, but Foxx was able to use the plots to see how the fire affected areas with different levels of fuel loading. What she found was that areas that had recently burned were not affected as severely as those with higher accumulations of fuel. Her work fit with the growing body of fire research and helped convince many in the Park Service and in northern New Mexico of the value of programs of controlled fire. [11]

The establishment of the Bandelier wilderness in 1976 also forced the reassessment of management policies. In the aftermath of the environmental decade, wilderness experiences became an important part of growing up for many Americans, and enthusiastic backpackers flocked to designated wilderness areas. The number of backcountry users at Bandelier jumped dramatically as soon as it became a designated wilderness. Visitation increased ten-fold the first year, and it added new responsibilities to the burden of the staff. [12] Not only did they have to protect Frijoles Canyon, they also had to maintain the pristine nature of the backcountry in the face of human encroachment. At the same time, they had to make sure that visitors were satisfied with their experience. In essence, the agency had to protect the wilderness area and its visitors from each other. The need for more sophisticated management became increasingly apparent.

The combination of the new resource management plan, which included provisions for the management of natural and cultural resources, the establishment of the wilderness area, the burro question, and the La Mesa fire pointed to the need for a resource management entity at the monument. Careful planning and management of the backcountry could ensure its survival and prevent situations that aroused public opposition against Park Service policies. Superintendent John Hunter and his staff planned a management unit that would included cultural and natural resource management responsibilities.

Under the leadership of John Lissoway, the first person that the Southwest Regional Office specifically trained in natural resource management, the resource management unit debuted in 1980. Its responsibilities included cultural and natural resource management as well as the wilderness area, and the park archeologist position also became part of resources management. This was an unusual practice. In most parks, wilderness responsibilities fell to the enforcement division, but as a result of the many research programs mandated for the wilderness, administration by resource managers seemed desirable. [13]

During the 1980s, the resource management unit grew in significance. It became equal in function to other divisions like protection and administration. But funding at the regional level for natural and cultural resources came from different and not interchangeable "pots" of money. Natural resources at the park received money from the regional natural resources funds while cultural resource money came from its counterpart in the region. During the early 1980s, Bandelier was a focus of natural resource activity and funding, while cultural resources had little to offer Bandelier. This contributed to a changing perception of the significance of the monument.

Funding at the regional level led to the perception of a lack of balance at the park. Because of the trend toward natural preservation in the agency, the increased sophistication of earth sciences, and the great need for management of natural resources at Bandelier, the disparity created tension. Lissoway went to "the well with the most water," natural resource and fire management funding. Cultural Resources at the regional level did not have the funding to match the expenditures on natural resources, and cultural resources managers in the Regional Office and at the park expressed concern that the bulk of spending at an archeological park went for programs directed at the natural resources of the monument. Without clearly understanding NPS allocation procedures, some park observers expressed frustration, wondering how the park could spend such a large portion of its budget on an area used by such a small percentage of its visitors.

The management of the backcountry also involved a sizable cultural resource component. Thousands of unexcavated archeological sites dotted the area, and these areas were better protected as a result of the burro reduction program, the new fire management policies, and other natural resource innovations. They did not help the park address the overcrowding of Frijoles Canyon, but they did further long-term goals of preservation.

The natural-cultural resource dichotomy closely mirrored the long-standing preservation vs. use issue within the agency. Visitation remained a major force at the monument, and this characteristic dichotomy again appeared, unfortunately in the guise of natural resource versus cultural resource management. When some suggested that the backcountry received too great a percentage of funding, they intimated that the process left the main attraction, Frijoles Canyon, without the resources necessary to protect and explain it. From that point of view, larger expenditures on natural resources favored preservation over use No one suggested that the backcountry programs were inappropriate; instead in an era of decreasing funding and limited options, greater attention for the features that bore the brunt of the effects of visitation seemed appropriate. But again, cultural resources at the regional level lacked the ability to provide the funding that its counterparts in natural resources could.

During the mid-1980s, there were signs of a returning balance in funding between the two arms of resource management. Cultural Resources at the regional level began to receive a larger portion of the monetary pie, which translated into more funding for cultural resources at the park. The initiation of an archeological survey at the monument meant a broader approach to cultural resource management and possibly a wealth of new interpretive information. As the head of the Resource Management Division, John Lissoway took steps to ensure a "holistic framework" in cultural and natural resource management policy. Regional natural resource managers also expressed willingness to accommodate cultural resources. "Put a cultural resources person in Lissoway's job [as the head of the Resources Management Division]," Milford Fletcher contended, "and we'll work just as closely with them." [14] By 1987, cultural resources had more money for its programs, and an equitable situation existed. Between the arrival of the Park Service at Bandelier in 1932 and the middle of the 1980s, resource management at the monument became an increasingly professional discipline. From its initial focus upon the ruins in Frijoles Canyon, it came to include both a larger area and scope. The backcountry and its resources, archeological and natural, became more important, and the philosophy of management at the park reflected the new priorities. Resource management became a function of specialists, who were assisted by contract researchers and an all-encompassing form of resource management was the result. By the late 1980s, balancing the different values of the monument offered the greatest internal challenge for park managers, while the world that surrounded the monument offered the greatest challenge to its future.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006