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Chapter VIII:

The wild beauty of the geography surrounding the cliff dwellings was recorded first by Bandelier in 1884, [1] and allusions to this subtle resource continue to crop up in archeological accounts. Shortly after the expansion of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, for example, E. B. Danson wrote to Conrad Wirth, the director of the National Park Service: Both Jess [Nusbaum] and I were completely captivated by the beauty of that walk [to the prehistoric dwellings]. A perennial stream meanders down along the path, the sound of water is constant and the vegetation is lush. It is one of the loveliest walks I have taken in many years...I don't know, Connie, when I have been more impressed with the potential of an area or more excited and thrilled by the beauty of the scenery and the flora. [2] To date, however, no formal surveys, inventories, or other studies have documented any of the natural elements at the monument or have provided a baseline for their management. [3]

After the arrival in 1963 of James Sleznick, the first ranger and subsequently the first superintendent, most attention focused on the construction of the visitor center, the stabilization of the ruins, and improvements to the trail. The most significant official acknowledgement of the monument's natural beauty was the decision—apparently still being debated during Danson's visit [4] —to keep the approach trail along the cool tree-shaded stream and not higher on the dry slopes of the canyon, where floods could not regularly cause damage. Otherwise, the management of natural resources has primarily been a coping issue directed towards the reduction of such hazards as dead tree limbs, loose rocks that threatened to fall onto the trail, and the repair of flood damage.

In the 1981 Resources Management Plan, the highest priorities were given to projects that would map and inventory the natural resources, but these were never funded, chilled by low budgets, and perhaps by the cold shoulder that environmental monitoring projects often received during the Reagan era. [5] Natural resource work at the monument continued to focus instead on maintaining and rebuilding the loop trail to the cliff dwellings, the only interpreted trail in the monument. The 1987 Resources Management Plan acknowledged the intrinsic priority of visitor safety and programs to protect capital improvements as well as cultural resources: ranked highest on the programming sheet were fencing out livestock and trespassing visitors, controlling erosion on the trail, and developing a fire management plan that included archeological considerations.


Long isolated and since 1924 almost completely encircled by officially designated wilderness, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument has been insulated from many of the modern encroachments that threaten parks and monuments elsewhere. A 1980 summary of threats to the monument deemed the number of concerns minimal. [6] Currently, threats include the effects of visitors, floods, bedrock deterioration, livestock, aircraft, fire, and air pollution.


Foremost among documented threats to the cultural resources that lie within the current bounds of the monument is and always has been visitors. Pothunting and other vandalisms, including even the burning of the cliff site, were commonly reported during the nineteenth century. Although this kind of activity tapered off after the designation of the monument in 1907, as late as 1958 "Doc" Campbell reported that hunters had built a fire among the cliff ruins and fueled it with prehistoric wood wrenched from the walls. [7]

In 1954, as we have seen, a less sinister form of destruction was reported that stemmed from people scrambling over the prehistoric architecture. The construction in the following year of a stile and a clear trail through the ruins mitigated this harm, and since then the control of visitor impacts has relied heavily on trail management: clear and solid demarcation, one-way flow to reduce congestion, and the construction of discreet barriers—including the elevation of prehistoric walls—to keep people from hazardous and sensitive areas. Currently, a uniformed ranger along the trail or in the ruins, signs, and the sweeping of trespass footprints contribute to the psychology of control. Graffiti, of course, has been a problem at least since C. Gerrish carved his name June 1, 1889, on a wooden slat in the cliff dwellings. [8] In 1917, Henry Woodrow, the McKinney District ranger for the Gila National Forest, obscured with a mud slurry graffiti incised on the prehistoric adobe. Today names and other inscriptions continue to be removed or obscured as soon as they are noticed, regardless of whether they are on prehistoric walls or new benches and trail markers.

A more difficult problem presented by visitors is their sheer numbers. In 1955, when the first MISSION 66 prospectus for the monument proposed its abandonment, 711 people toured the cliff site. Thirty-six years later, 60,000 annual visitors were projected to walk through the ruins, including 1,500 over Memorial Day Weekend. [9] Still unknown are the debilitating effects of that many people walking past the architecture—of the mere vibrations of their footsteps, much less the inevitable touching of and even leaning on walls that accompanies crowds confined in small places. In the 1987 Resources Management Plan, a study to determine the overall carrying capacity of the cliff dwellings was ranked third among 14 projects dealing with cultural resources. Great concern has been expressed about the cavity under Room 25: the visitor trail currently passes directly over the thin roof of the cavity, and a study to determine its structural stability was ranked second in the same resources management plan.

Currently, neither of these studies has been funded. The geologist [10] who examined in 1985 the cavity under Room 25 proposed that the trail be diverted from over the area, but this diversion would require the construction of a new exit from the ruins. In 1968, when only 25,000 people toured the cliff site, a partial closure of the ruins was debated and rejected, but the suggestion hovers in the background. An alternative suggested in 1980 was to limit each hour the number of visitors allowed into the cliff dwellings. This limitation has not been implemented, either, although monument staff rarely guide single groups of more than 25 people through the site. [11] In addition to damaging the prehistoric architecture— whether by accident, thoughtlessness, or mere numbers—visitors aggravate erosion along the trail by short-cutting. Also, unaware of the cumulative impact, they occasionally pick flowers and other plants, collect archeological artifacts, and harass wildlife—especially reptiles and amphibians.


Although the high sheltered location of Gila Cliff Dwellings protects those ruins from heavy rains and ensuing floods, access to the site, bridges, and other improvements have often been impaired or damaged. As late as 1963, driving to the monument entailed fording the Gila River 14 times, [12] and the freshets that accompany violent rains or sudden thaws could strand travelers. Even after construction of a paved highway, floods have occasionally washed out the approaches to bridges—twice in 1978, once in 1983, 1984, 1985, [13] and most recently in 1988. [14] These washouts required the closure of the monument for periods ranging from two to six weeks. One of the 1978 floods submerged portions of the parking lot and undermined the contact station and the restrooms. In 1978 and again in 1984, a section of the road between the monument and the Forest Service's nearby Scorpion Campground was washed out. Repair and maintenance of the paved road and bridges for vehicular traffic are the responsibility of the New Mexico State Highway Department. [15]

Within the monument, floods several times prior to 1967, and in 1967, [16] 1972, [17] and 1978 washed out the footbridge over the West Fork of the Gila River. The bridges in Cliff Dweller Canyon have suffered intermittently. Currently, there are eight bridges in the canyon, all built between 1984 and 1989, and the spans and heights of supporting piers appear to have been increased sufficiently to avoid substantial flood damage. The trail, on the other hand, continues to require maintenance after heavy rains and even reconstruction in the section located along the stream in Cliff Dweller Canyon.

Bedrock Deterioration

In a 1979 stabilization inspection report, Larry Nordby, supervisory archeologist from the Southwestern Resources Center, observed that the bedrock was deteriorating beneath the outer walls of Rooms 1 and 4, a problem he tentatively attributed to percolating ground moisture. [18] For the future stabilization of those walls, he recommended that unamended mortar be applied at the base in order not to trap this moisture and in that way accelerate bedrock failure, architectural failure, or both. Beyond proscribing cement, Nordby recommended only that the area be closely monitored.

In 1985, after a five-ton boulder crashed down a canyon wall onto the approach trail, Bruce Wachter, a geologist, was contracted by the Park Service to further examine bedrock deterioration and the hazard of rock fall. [19] By and large, his observations recognized a general stability of the cliff faces and caves and only minor bedrock deterioration in Cave 2. He did recommend, however, that loose overhead slabs be pried down, that visitor traffic be barred or diverted from potentially threatening areas, and that monitoring for both architectural and geological failure continue.


In the 1987 Resources Management Plan, fencing of the TJ Ruin and surveying and fencing the rest of the monument were given the highest priority on programming sheets for both cultural and natural resource projects. In 1884, Bandelier had noted the ugly presence of what he presumed was manure within the cliff dwellings. [20] In 1935, G. H. Gordon, who worked in the Southwest Monuments headquarters in Casa Grande, Arizona, recommended that the mouth of Cliff Dweller Canyon be fenced against drifting livestock, and in 1937 a Park Service team from the Region III Office again recommended fencing, adding that "cattle have climbed into the cave and done considerable damage there." [21] Shortly afterwards, staff from the Gila National Forest built a fence across the mouth of Cliff Dweller Canyon, with the help of cowboys from the nearby Heart Bar headquarters. At the TJ site, since at least 1955, the small size of the surface sherds of pottery has been commonly attributed to trampling by livestock. Better known in 1927 as the "polo field," this site may have endured more than just the perambulations of cattle.

In 1951, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish purchased the Heart Bar Ranch, including its grazing allotment—known as the Glenn allotment—which it retired through a cooperative agreement with the Gila National Forest. [22] Livestock were withdrawn in order to reintroduce elk without overgrazing the grasses within the wilderness. Because both units of Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument lie within the Glenn allotment, the depredations of cattle have been negligible over the last 40 years. Horses continue to be a minor problem. [23] Until 1988, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish kept some horses in Heart Bar pastures along the Middle Fork and the West Fork, and this stock occasionally crossed the rivers through damaged water-gaps and strayed onto the TJ site. Recently, however, the game department has withdrawn its permanent staff and its stock from the Heart Bar. Occasionally, upstream from the contact station, riders still inadvertently cross with their stock over the unmarked boundaries of the larger unit of the monument.


A more contemporary encroachment on the monument occurs from aircraft. As early as 1980, concern was expressed about the effects of low-flying aircraft on cultural resources. [24] Eight years later, a survey [25] documented the occasional overflights by military aircraft, local administrative aircraft, and other aviation at elevations less than 2,000 feet above the terrain, as well as frequent overflights by commercial airlines at elevations greater than 10,000 feet. The noise of all these overflights was deemed objectionable. Of most concern, however, were the military flights in a training corridor that passes close to the monument at only 300 feet above the ground. Many of these aircraft practiced "Follow Terrain" procedures.

In 1989, Janet Hurley, the Wilderness District ranger and superintendent of the monument, reported an average of three near-misses between the military aircraft and helicopters coming into the Forest Service heli-base that is immediately adjacent to the TJ Ruin. [26] Aside from the issue of safety, Hurley expressed concern about the effects of the noise on local wildlife, the values of solitude in the adjacent wilderness, and the 700-year- old mud and rock walls of Gila Cliff Dwellings. The effects of this noise are not currently monitored in a formal way.


Until 1975, when the Park Service turned over management of the monument to the Forest Service, the two agencies held a cooperative plan for the management of fire on that site. [27] Currently, fire control for the monument is subsumed in the larger wilderness fire management plan, but Park Service staff have expressed concern that this plan may not adequately address the special requirements of cultural resources during fire suppression activities. The 1987 Resources Management Plan recommended the development of a fire management plan specific to the monument and gave this proposal a third priority on the natural resources programing sheets.

For a long time, the only recorded incident of an wildfire on the monument was a burning snag in 1968 that was extinguished by Don Morris and his stabilization crew, using hoses that brought water for their cement mixes. [28] In May 1991, however, the Grudgings Fire burned 515 acres on the West Fork, including 75 acres of the monument and the nearby eponymous cabin as well. [29] Although eight archeological sites were involved—with firelines lightly scratched through two of them—the overall impact on cultural resources by the fire and fire suppression activities was light. Undoubtedly, quick response by the Wilderness District staff prevented a larger fire and substantially greater damage. In the aftermath of this event, the fire management policy is being reviewed.

Air Quality

The major threats to air quality at the monument are smoke from the Phelps Dodge copper smelter forty miles south, in Hurley, and smoke from both wild and prescribed fires. In 1980, the National Park Service recommended that the air quality status at the monument be upgraded from Class II to a Class I. [30] This redesignation stemmed apparently from the monument's location in the heart of a wilderness area, which had automatically received a Class I classification as mandated by the 1980 Clean Air Act. [31] In 1979, the collection of monitoring and baseline data had already begun at the Wilderness District weather station. [32] Since 1986, photographs have been taken three times a day at the Copperas Vista to record visibility levels. [33] The effects of pollution on local flora and fauna are not monitored.

Responsibility for enforcing compliance with Class I clean air standards lies with the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division. To date, no enforcement activities to protect air quality at the monument or the surrounding wilderness have constrained firing at the smelter or the use of prescribed fire in the Gila National Forest.


In 1933, when the Park Service assumed responsibility for Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, the site became one of the smallest units in the system of Southwestern monuments, and it was isolated in the middle of the largest wilderness area in the Southwest. Obviously, managing its resources was not easy. Initially held in a reserve status, with visits discouraged, the cliff ruins became the object of stabilization projects as funds became available. These projects compared favorably with those done at other monuments, and they have been continued as necessary through the present, enabling the architecture to withstand the cumulative stresses of more than 50,000 people who now visit the monument each year.

Interpretation has focused on the cliff site, which for a long time and for a variety of reasons was not well understood. The publication of The Archeology of Gila Cliff Dwellings in 1986 has admirably filled that lacuna, and in recent years research has addressed the TJ Ruin and other nearby archeological sites, enhancing the larger interpretive potential of the monument. Despite proportionally huge numbers of visitors and a small professional staff, personal contact remains the primary source of interpretation.

The natural resources of the small monument are notable for their beauty, but little has yet been done to document them. On the other hand, threats to the monument's natural assets appear to be minimal, stemming primarily from the visitors themselves, who are restricted to a single interpreted trail that is one mile long.

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Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001