Administrative History
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damaged entrance gate
Figure 15. In several cases, angry visitors who arrived just after the park's business hours
bumped their cars against the locked gates to break into the park. This photograph shows
the entrance gate that was broken the night of March 17, 1970.
Courtesy of Fort Union National Monument.

While quietly enduring the subversive impact of nature, the weather-beaten ruins at Fort Union National Monument faced unnatural threats to their existence and integrity. It is true that sometimes human wrongdoing, either malicious or negligent, are more evasive and destructive than natural forces. Without exception, both people and the civilization they created often posed "external threats" to disturb the peaceful park. In the first 36 years of its history, the monument achieved a good safety record with only minimal damage caused by people due to geographical isolation, limited territory, and low visitation. But Fort Union never appeared as a safe haven for those to seek an escape from the dangerous world. Various undesired human activities, such as theft, vandalism, encroachment, pollution, careless fire, commercial development, and low-flying aircraft generated enough concerns for the Park Service. These problems and responses become another chapter in the story of resource management.

The concept of outside human threats to the existence of Fort Union surfaced rather slowly; it took no less than 25 years to reach its maturity. During the first decade after the establishment of the monument, the enthusiastic park administration paid little attention to such issues. The staff concentrated on ruins preservation and interpretation. More importantly, the location of the fort induced people to minimize their worry about human malice toward the ruins. Surrounded by a 97,000-acre cattle ranch, in single ownership, Fort Union was separated from civilization because no large population center existed nearby. The isolation was bad news for visitation but an advantage for protection. The dead-end eight-mile entrance road appeared less inviting for the visitor to come and more difficult for the criminal to escape. According to the park records, serious incidents involving human mistakes rarely occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. Therefore, the Park Service believed that Fort Union was immune to the outside world.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, this belief began to erode as the conservation movement in the nation took a holistic approach to preservation. Changing perceptions of American society contributed to more aggressive vigilance on the part of the Park Service. The new concerns stretched beyond the borders of park areas. By the 1970s, the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA) and other environmental groups that supported the park system had expressed concerns for the lands surrounding park areas. In 1976, Director Gary E. Everhardt declared that the most severe threats the system faced were external. [1] The issue immediately became prominent on the agenda of the agency. A Park Service study conducted in 1980 identified over two thousand outside activities affecting various units of the national park system. Suddenly, many people felt that the national parks had been "islands under siege." [2]

The combination of the new perception of threats and the growing pressure upon resources demanded attention from the staff at Fort Union. In accordance with the Park Service's policy to identify and counteract the broadening range of potential threats, fort management stepped up responses to once neglected outside threats. Within its ability, the park began to keep good records on incident cases. Also, the superintendent's annual reports focused more attention on the subject. It was unknown whether a growing notion of outside threats and an increasing number of incidents were coincident or not. Perhaps increased visitation was the cause. In any case, available documents enable us to examine the issue of management concern about outside threats.

As a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, the War on Waste had reinforced the Park Service's determination that the safety of both employees and visitors was crucial. In 1964 when the MISSION 66 program was entering its final stage, the Park Service launched a new campaign, MISSION 70, which aimed at accident reduction. According to program, each unit in the Park Service system would apply safety measures to prevent human-caused accidents and fires. Starting in the same years, the six regions and 221 units of the national park system participated in a five-year contest for the lowest record of accident and fire loss. Each year the winners would receive certificates. In 1965, after the first season, Fort Union won an award for excellent safety performance in which no disabling injury, motor vehicle accident, and structural fire occurred at the site. After the good start, for the next four years, the monument achieved a perfect record under the MISSION SAFETY 70 program. [3]

Throughout the history of Fort Union National Monument, the safety record of visitors was nearly perfect. No person ever died or was fatally injured in the park. Besides the previous mentioned snakebite incident, only one visitor required emergency care. In the morning on June 24, 1977, a female visitor appeared at the visitor center, calling for help. A few minutes before her husband had collapsed in front of the quartermaster's quarters. Ranger Robert Hoff rushed to the scene to assist the patient and then drove him to Las Vegas Hospital. The patient soon recovered from the illness caused by a combination of high blood pressure, high altitude, and irregular potassium levels. The quick and proper response to the emergency call avoided any serious consequences. [4]

Although no fatal injury or death occurred in the park, the administration prepared for any possible emergency situation. In 1973, Chief Ranger Robert Arnberger initiated a program to bring public safety operations up to Park Service standards. His actions included purchase of first-aid equipment, improvement of the record-keeping system, and training of qualified personnel. [5] In 1974, training received top priority. The slow spring season allowed all park employees and their family members plus neighboring ranchers, a total of 22 persons, to attend an American Red Cross multimedia standard firs-aid course. In addition, Superintendent Hopkins, Chief Ranger Arnberger, and Park Technician Ella Rayburn completed a 52-hour emergency medical technician course, sponsored by the American Red Cross and the New Mexico State Police, in Las Vegas. Thereafter, the park kept trained personnel at the fort to cope with emergencies. [6]

In 1979, students from New Mexico Highlands University broke the monument's perfect fire-control record of almost a quarter-century by kindling two grass fires among the ruins. In the afternoon of March 13, eight art students accidently threw lit material into the grass while they were painting. The fire broke out at 3:30 p.m. A visitor from Las Vegas, William Johnson, reported it to Ann Belen at the visitor center. She gave him a CO2 fire extinguisher to take to the site. Three other park employees rushed to the fire scene with the 300-gallon pumper and equipment. They found that two grass sections were burning; one was east of the northernmost company barracks and the other was east of the prison. Fortunately, the wind was calm at the time, and the flames did not spread out of control. With the assistance of eight visitors, the park staff extinguished the fires in a few minutes. Since each student told a different story about what happened, Ranger Hoff was unable to identify the person who ignited the fire, and the students were released from the investigation. But the park staff did not cease their vigilance. On the contrary, they realized that human mistakes and outside threats could be devastating to the park resources. [7]

As with the students who almost caused a fire disaster, other negligent visitors and their careless behavior put different pressure on resource management. As a small historic site, Fort Union provided visitors with no lodging or campgrounds except a few picnic tables for day use only. The beautiful valley in which the fort was located often tempted travelers to stay overnight. Sometimes, they illegally pitched tents near the residential area outside the monument. Several unauthorized camping cases occurred each year. The campers made the park authorities nervous because their campfires or gas stoves could start a grass fire if the wind suddenly gusted. The park enforced the non-camping rule without compromise. As soon as the unwelcome travelers were discovered, the park rangers evicted them by issuing a verbal warning. This house-cleaning policy went on effectively.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001