Administrative History
NPS Logo


fire training
Figure 13. In order to prevent grass fire hazard, the fort regularly trains its employees in fire fighting.
Two employees stand before a fire cache in the 1982 fire drill.
Courtesy of Fort Union National Monument.

One of Fort Union National Monument's managerial objectives is to conserve the scenery, the natural resources, and the wildlife both at the monument and in the surrounding area. The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 directed the Park Service to preserve these resources and to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. As a result of a number of factors, including the size of the park, a shortage of personnel available to study the environment, and the status of the monument as a historic site, the management of natural resources remained secondary to the rehabilitation of the ruins and the interpretive program. In the last two decades, however, the Park Service has been broadening its responsibilities at Fort Union. The conservation of the physical environment is becoming a priority at the monument.

For years, natural resource management was nonexistent at Fort Union. Established to preserve the remnants of an old military post, the monument, more like a history museum than a scenic park, concentrated its efforts on management of the cultural resources. Even if there was an interest in the park's environmental aspects, the small permanent staff --usually three to four persons--limited the park's ability to conduct any large-scale scientific research. In contrast to many other units in the park system, Fort Union occupies a small area encircled by vast private lands. In the beginning there was no immediate need to consider a natural resource management program. Accordingly, the Park Service simply reacted to most natural resource issues. It responded to them only when nature posed an impending threat to the ruins.

A passiveness and unsophistication characterized all of the park's early decisions and activities in dealing with natural resources. For a long time, natural resource management and protection had been synonymous, encompassing such actions as suppressing fires, controlling floods, stopping trespassers, and guarding the flora and fauna from damage. Although Superintendent Kittridge Wing lacked any experience whatsoever in natural resource management, his intuition told him to protect the integrity of the fort as much as possible. Intended to preserve the ruins, not the environment, some of the measures implemented by his administration nonetheless benefited the natural world of Fort Union.

To save the remains of the old fort, the monument lost no time in enclosing its newly acquired property. Since the last of the troops marched away from the post in 1891, the Union Land and Grazing Company had allowed its cattle to feed freely in the fort area. Gradually the land became overgrazed; certain plant species increased at the expense of others, leaving the land in poor condition. [1] After regaining control of the area, the National Park Service prohibited grazing. Wing decided to fence the monument's boundaries. In April 1956, he secured enough funds to fence the territory. Two months later, the regional office granted a $5,048 contract to Steve Franken of Las Vegas. Following the marking stakes set by Regional Engineer George Johnston, Franken fenced both sections (the Third Fort and the Ordnance Depot) within five weeks. [2] The final exclusion of stock assured the recovery of the vegetation.

It was much harder to exclude fire, particularly unpredictable wildfires, from the park. This destructive natural force often posed a threat to the ruins. As early as January 1956, a wildfire engulfed 100 acres of short-grass sheep pasture ten miles south of the park, along Highway 85. Greatly concerned, Superintendent Wing observed, "if such a burn can happen in January in short grass, the alarming possibilities of a warm-weather burn in the long grass at Fort Union are evident." [3] There was an urgency to prepare for fighting wildfire, which could occur at anytime and anywhere.

The following month Wing contacted the regional forester in regard to a fire fighting jeep for the monument. Although the regional office had promised to deliver a jeep, it ruled out any hope that the Park Service would furnish a tank and pump equipment. [4] Because of a previous agreement in which the Union Land and Grazing Company donated all of the needed fire-fighting equipment, the Park Service agreed only to maintain the property and personnel at the site. Thus, Wing's continuous appeal for help did not change his superior's mind. For quite a while, Fort Union had little fire equipment.

Despite little assistance from Santa Fe, Fort Union tried its best to cope with the problem. In August 1957, Wing, in cooperation with the Union Land and Grazing Company, made arrangements with the New Mexico State Highway Department to rent a grader to create firebreak lanes along the entrance road. In addition, the visitor area of the monument received firebreak lanes on three sides with Wolf Creek forming a natural defense on the western side. [5] The measure reduced the fire threat from outside. In 1958, a wildfire on the adjacent ranch property burned 200 acres. remaining calm, the park employees trusted to the utility of the firebreaks.

Nevertheless, the park was vulnerable to any fire hazard within the monument's boundaries. This situation did not change until 1959 when Fort Union got its first running water system. In January, the Star & Cummins Company of Albuquerque installed a 50,000-gallon water tank in the northwest corner and laid all the pipes to the main sections of the monument. The modern water system provided not only drinking water for the employees but fire protection for the previously unprotected ruins. Hose houses were erected at each fire hydrant. They increased the park's fire-fighting capabilities.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001