Mesa Verde National Park:
Shadows of the Centuries
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Chapter 11:
The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

THE RECORD NUMBERS OF VISITORS PREDICTED FOR THE 1970s began to arrive as the decade opened. And during 1976, the bicentennial year of the United States of America, an all-time high of 676,935 people visited the park, where two hundred years did not even begin to reach back to the point at which the Anasazi era ended. That surge was followed by a slide, which would not be reversed until 1980. A previous decline in 1973—1974 and the one in the late 1970s were both caused when a threatened gasoline shortage created by the international oil crisis produced unprecedented higher prices at the pump. The alarmed public stayed nearer home. Rocky Mountain National Park suffered the same fate, although it still far outdistanced Mesa Verde in popularity, topping three million visitors in 1978.

Despite the boom-and-bust aspects of the 1970s, Colorado benefited mightily from the magnetic attraction that both of these parks held for the traveling American. As Colorado benefited, so did other states. Commenting on the impact of the national park system to local economies, Director George Hartzog noted that $7.8 billion had been spent by visitors on their way to and in the vicinity of all parks in 1970. He recommended to his superintendents that they keep that salient fact in mind, warning them at the same time not to sacrifice basic park values for short-term tourist gains. Such tactics would surely "kill the goose that lays the golden eggs." [1] The planning and work that went on at Mesa Verde in the 1960s had been designed to resolve that dilemma before the park was forced to pay a fatal price for its growing popularity.

A survey in the 1970s showed that the typical visitor's experience consisted of a self-guided tour of a cliff dwelling, "supplemented by a walk through the museum," and an hour and a half drive along the ruins loop. Self-guided tours had returned to favor because of the excessive amount of time and the number of rangers required to run continuous guided tours in all the ruins. The typical tourists came, saw, and hurried on to another spot. The typical family spent about six rushed hours in the park from entry to exit.

One innovation to keep crowds and traffic under control was tried: the distribution of tickets for specified times to tour Cliff Palace and Balcony House. Spruce Tree House stayed on a self-guided basis, with rangers always patrolling the ruin to supervise and to answer questions. Ticketed times alleviated some of the standing in line and the tiresome waiting and allowed a maximum number of visitors to explore the sites.

More relief came in 1973, when most of Wetherill Mesa was finally opened for visitation. Money shortages and an unfavorable political climate, brought on by the Vietnam War, had kept the project in limbo for years. Proposals had been "hashed over and over" about what to do and how to do it with the least possible damage to the fragile ruins. Uncontrolled visits seemed to be out of the question, and the government did not have the funds to carry out the ambitious original plans. When some money finally became available, the road to the mesa was built. Then came the energy crisis of 1971 and, with it, popular enthusiasm for conserving gasoline. The Mesa Verde Company capitalized on those circumstances to purchase a mini-train to transport visitors around the Wetherill Mesa sites, after a bus had brought the passengers there from the new Far View complex. [2] Reviewing those years, Ron Switzer, superintendent in the 1970s, emphasized that they required "real pioneering." He pointed out that the mini-trains were the first alternative transportation system in the National Park Service, "outside of the Mall in Washington." He and his staff planned stabilization projects, shaded waiting areas, guided tours, and built shelters over the fragile surfaces of ruins sites and trails. "I can tell you that hanging paved trails on the edges of the mesas is quite a difficult engineering feat, but we did it, mostly with day labor and materials and a couple of very good trail foremen." Switzer complimented his staff for their efforts: "We had some marvelous dedicated people on the staff with some rather unique and amazing skills." [3] Insufficient funds meant it would be 1987 before all the projects and plans begun during his administration would come to fruition.

The first visitors toured Long House; later in that summer of 1973, other sites were opened. Wetherill Mesa and the Far View Visitor Center were able to take some of the pressure off of Chapin Mesa. For the first time in the park's history, there was an easily reachable alternative to the popular attractions of Chapin.

Year after year, the park headquarters were flooded with "literally hundreds of requests" for information. And they came not just from Americans—foreign visitors showed ever-increasing interest in the park, too. Those who arrived were given handouts in German, French, Japanese, and Spanish. These helped the education program, but by the end of the decade, serious consideration was being given to hiring seasonal interpreters who spoke one or more of those languages. Over the years, Mesa Verde had gained a worldwide reputation that rivaled Yellowstone's among the national parks in the United States. [4]

The steady upsurge in numbers forced the National Park Service into planning once more for the future and, to a lesser degree, into reevaluating the purpose of Mesa Verde. The nonrenewable Anasazi sites imposed strict limitations on the potential for park utilization. The use, management, and protection of the park had to be continuously evaluated as its popularity threatened its existence. A 1979 management plan specified the numbers of visitors that could be handled without seriously endangering the "unique experience for which Mesa Verde has been famous."

It was decided that no more than nine hundred visitors per hour should be allowed through the park entrance in order to avoid degrading the visitors' experience. To achieve that goal would require putting a limit on visitors at the peak of the summer season, a possibility that received some consideration before it was discarded. The limit on visitors per hour was eventually rescinded.

On crowded summer nights, the new Morefield Campground became the second largest community in Montezuma County. (Courtesy: William Winkler)

As alternatives to limiting numbers, the 1979 report recommended extending the visitor day, scheduling additional guided tours, and opening more cliff dwellings to the public. All these modifications would require more staff and more funding, neither of which the National Park Service could supply. In a reiteration of some of the ideas that had been discussed but never implemented during Mission 66, it was recommended that park headquarters be relocated to the entrance and that some of the permanent staff be moved off the mesa. To meet the changing interests of the public, it was proposed that the foot and bike trail system on Chapin Mesa be expanded and that an effort be made to acquaint visitors with the "numerous recreational and educational opportunities" available within the park and the surrounding region. [5]

Those kinds of possibilities within the park were limited. Unlike Rocky Mountain or Yellowstone, where a variety of scenery and experiences lay in wait for the adventuresome, most of Mesa Verde remained off limits to the visitor. As a September 1973 article in the Los Angeles Times reminded its readers, this was the only national park in the nation where visitors found themselves not "free to hike at will through the back country."

Despite the obvious need to expand tours and park facilities, the bold and intense Ronald Switzer, one of the youngest and more controversial of the park's superintendents, was restrained by economic considerations and forced to cut back. "The park was underfunded," in his opinion, but Switzer pushed ahead with fine-tuning the park's management system, which included reorganization. "Sometimes you don't make friends when you do that kind of thing, but it took some of the unmet needs and responsibilities and put them where they belonged," the aggressive superintendent admitted. "All in all it was great adventure and a very serious management challenge." When evaluating Switzer's administration, several park contemporaries concluded that "he did a good job." [6]

The rising cost of gasoline and other forms of energy forced the National Park Service to economize to stay within budgeted allotments. The first real impact of the crisis came in 1973­1974, for the park as well as for the visitor. The cost of gasoline, which soared to over a dollar a gallon, sliced alarmingly into both the park's and the travelers' budgets. A casualty of the cutbacks came in the winter of 1975­1976—all the campgrounds were closed, thereby ending the era of winter camping in the Chapin Mesa picnic area (Morefield Campground had never been open in the off-season). A press release explained that "increasing reductions" of budget and of personnel ceilings had left the park unable to expend the money on personnel to maintain winter camping. [7]

The National Park Service adjusted to the changing times, and so did the Mesa Verde Company. The company rolled strongly and profitably into the 1970s, featuring its new Far View complex, but changes were coming in the concessions business throughout the park system. Bill Winkler, Ansel Hall's son-in-law and now president of the company, explained why:

The big companies started to come in. There was great thrust for control among concessionaires. The rules and regulations became almost worse, and they worked in a way I don't think the National Park Service even suspected. These big companies, with political power—they worked with senators throughout the country—they could handle the government. But a private concessionaire individual could not always deal with the government successfully.

To complicate matters, the new generation of Hall children "had greener fields to go plow, they didn't want to be park concessionaires." As Bill expressed it, "there were no replacements coming up. . . . I felt compelled to get dividends out to the family, and the National Park Service still needed a couple of million dollars' worth of development." Some other members of the family, weary of the expenses and the struggles, favored selling out. Pressure built on the Winklers to end the Hall generation at Mesa Verde. Bill himself was reaching the stage of burnout. "I'm convinced you make contributions until you've given all you can and beyond that there is a flattening of the growth curve. I guess we had reached that flattening."

After analyzing the possibilities, Bill decided to sell and started to negotiate with ARA, a Philadelphia-based company. ARA had purchased the Virginia Skyline Company from a friend of his, and Winkler liked their established record in Shenandoah National Park. Following a lengthy process that went all the way to Washington, the National Park Service approved the sale to ARA, at the same time expressing some reservations about the demise of the family operation and the arrival of corporate control. Implications for the future could not be allowed to deter the required action, and the sale was completed in 1976, ending nearly forty years of Hall management. [8]

The Mesa Verde Company actually had little choice but to sell out; the times, government policy, and family and business considerations weighed heavily against its continuing. Although the average visitor who came to the park in the spring of 1977 would not have noticed the change in management, the withdrawal of the Mesa Verde Company signified the end of an era that went back to the very first days of the Mesa Verde concessions. The trend toward consolidation and corporation control, which had been going on in American business for years, had finally caught up with the park. Without question this change took the personal factor, the individual touch, out of Mesa Verde, as it had done at Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain national parks. At Rocky Mountain, the government purchased private land holdings within the park in order to remove the buildings and restore the sites to their natural state.

One change the repeat visitor might have noticed by mid-decade was that two long-time favorite activities had disappeared. Since the days of the Wetherills and C. B. Kelly, horseback riding had been available for those tourists who wanted to examine some of the outlying ruins. It was no more. First, the horses were removed from the museum area to the Morefield Campground, where they could be ridden around a couple of trails, hardly a memorable adventure. When that contract ran out, the government ended the concession, saying quite truthfully that it was "more recreational than interpretive." The way the cancellation was handled shocked some people, including the Winklers, who had no financial interest in the horseback-riding concession. Ansel Hall had long ago sold it, realizing it took special people to run it. "It was a terrible thing. The government just zeroed in on him [Emmett Koppenhafer] and got him out. I had always heard this could happen if the government wanted to get rid of you." [9]

The ever-popular Navajo dances ended, too. The Navajos were not of the Pueblo culture, it was argued, and therefore their dancing "was not authentic" within the Anasazi tradition. So that favorite of the evening campfire, which dated back to the 1920s, also vanished. The campfire talks themselves migrated to the Morefield Campground, where a new and larger amphitheater awaited them. Finally, after more than fifty years, the annual planting of a cornfield was discontinued.

Most of these changes went unnoticed, except by old-timers. But new visitors were not reluctant to complain about procedures that irritated them. One family objected to being told that the narrow roads meant they had to leave their trailer outside the park and remove their wide-vision mirrors from the side of their car. Unwilling to tolerate such inconvenience, they left, grumbling all the while about the silly rules. Safety rules on narrow roads were made to be ignored by many, who saw them as deterrents to their fun. A father complained that the ARA Company would not redeem aluminum cans for five cents, destroying his children's impression that "ecology pays off."

Some of the old familiar complaints resurfaced, as they always seemed to do seasonally. High prices—seventy cents for a can of soda—appeared exorbitant to a Massachusetts couple. An Arizona man became irate when he found several cliff dwellings closed because of bad weather during April 1977. He complained that he had received no notice of this and had therefore paid the two-dollar entry fee without being "able to utilize the park adequately." A charge of false advertising came to park headquarters from a California man who had read a sign at the Durango train depot saying that reservations were needed to stay overnight in the park. He promptly called, only to find out that they were not; his complaint was that he was out $1.50 in phone charges. [10] American tourists are fascinating creatures; some seem never to be satisfied.

Content or complaining, tourists made an economic impact on nearby communities. Cortez, for the first full decade, basked in the glory of being a gateway to Mesa Verde; paved highways now stretched from it in all directions. Its income from tourists had grown, and jobs had expanded as more tourist-related businesses sprouted. Like neighboring Durango, however, Cortez found that tourism provided mixed seasonal blessings.

During the off-season, employment suffered and income slumped. The tourist-based economy was subject to yearly highs and lows.

Meanwhile, a subtle change was evolving in Durango's love affair with Mesa Verde. Where once the park had been the major attraction, along with the mountain scenery, now the community had a famous narrow-gauge railroad in its front yard, an expanding ski area in its back yard, and Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs nearby. Mesa Verde sat fifty miles from town and had to be shared with a rival. [11] Ever so quietly, promotion shifted toward the attractions nearer to home, which required no sharing of profits or publicity. Mesa Verde was never ignored—it just received lower billing, where once it had been the feature attraction. The shift went largely unnoticed and followed no preconceived plan by any individual or group. Good business practice dictated that the newer home-based attractions be promoted more vigorously. The park would always be there to draw tourists and contribute its share to the economy without much advertising on Durango's part.

Amid the changes, Mesa Verde evolved, looking both toward the past and to the future for guideposts. Over the years, the number of people employed in the park had steadily increased. In the bicentennial year there were 39 permanent positions and 122 seasonals, most of which involved maintenance and interpretation. In honor of the national celebration, the park installed bicentennial symbols on all the buildings, flew the official flag, and sponsored programs and films, as did other parks. Of special interest were the exhibits constructed by the museum staff to inform visitors of the relationship between the prehistoric inhabitants and the nation's birth. One of them depicted the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, which had passed near the area during some unusually cool and damp August days two hundred years before. Events so recent as that in relation to Mesa Verde hardly deserved more than passing mention in what Alfred, Lord Tennyson, called "the eternal landscape of the past."

Something that emerged in the 1970s and signified a reawakening of national interest in the country's history was a growing awareness of the park's history and of its historic structures, as opposed to the prehistoric culture that had always attracted the lion's share of attention. Spruce Tree Point came in for special mention, and Jesse Nusbaum's plans and building efforts earned praise for being "sensitively and knowledgeably designed" to fit into the "setting and history without jarring visitors from their communion with the past." The people who dominated the park story, not just the buildings, merited scholars' attention. The Wetherills' contributions, especially Richard's, underwent a historical metamorphosis. Where once the family had been castigated as "pothunters," now the role of the family in drawing attention to the ancient culture and its ruins, and their pioneering efforts to preserve the relics, became subjects of approbation. The long-overdue recognition was accorded none too soon, in the opinion of family descendants.

An older park tradition was also revitalized about this time. Indian weavers, and occasionally potters, who had once displayed their skills for visitors, now put on "living history" demonstrations. And, finally, an oral history program to interview old-timers who had played roles in the Mesa Verde story was planned in 1979 and started the next year. [12]

The Mesa Verde Museum Association, founded in 1930, took on more projects throughout the 1970s than it ever had before. It published pamphlets and books, both in the historical and prehistorical fields, and donated money to the park to purchase interpretive items not available through regular government channels. The library continued to expand its book holdings within the limits that its budget allowed, thus enhancing the research opportunities for scholars.

Every improvement held the potential for enriching the visitors' experience, an ever so important criterion. A 1979 study emphasized that Mesa Verde relied on effective interpretation, "perhaps more than any other national park." The best way for people of today to acquire empathy for the Anasazi was to spend time at the ruins and in the park, the report concluded. The park, created to preserve antiquities, now offered a broader opportunity to savor the land, the environment, and the remains. Through matured interpretation, a deeper appreciation of Anasazi life could be acquired. To Mesa Verde's detriment, heavy tourist pressure, travelers' time limitations, the fragile nature of the dwellings, and their restricted capacity precluded most opportunities for in-depth personal exploration. The inevitable shallow exposure called for "effective interpretation" to fill the gap. As the popular and perceptive ranger Don Watson had written, the ruins were the "least important part. Cliff Palace is really built of the hopes and desires, the joys and sorrows of an industrious people. It is not a cold empty city, for it is still warm with the emotion of its builders." [13] To make these Anasazi and their culture come alive had always been a challenge to and a goal of the National Park Service. Each decade, with its new interpretive resources, and each archaeological dig, with its new discoveries, helped bring this goal a little nearer to realization.

Kelly's cabin
Kelly's cabin was a memory for only a few old-timers by the 1970s. Compared to the cabin, this Denver-area family's campsite in Morefield Campground could be described as luxurious. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

One of the most popular methods of achieving educational enlightenment continued to be that long-time favorite, the campfire program, which was held nightly from late May into September. Popularity and tradition did not mean stagnation, and new ideas constantly enhanced the presentations. For instance, the twenty-two thousand people, give or take a few, who witnessed the programs in 1976 were surrounded by taped music and sounds that accompanied the slide shows.

Interpretation never came easily, explained Gil Wenger, who worked with the interpretive services throughout the decade. First, personnel had to be selected who were knowledgeable interpreters and enthusiastic speakers; fortunately, he said, "we had more real good ones than we had bad." Developing "good interpretive literature" took special skills and a feel for the nature of the park and the public. During the complex daily routine, rangers moved from one site to another to spell each other and to goal sometimes difficult to achieve with the "poorly operating GSA cars from the Farmington motor pool." Another unexpected problem surfaced: "Some of these [vehicles] were so old they still had clutches in them and we had to train young adults how to drive with clutches."

Gil Wenger enjoyed everything about the park, even the tribulations that went along with the job. "I believed in my job of serving the public," he reminisced, and in the long-established tradition of Mesa Verde, he put in many hours of unpaid overtime. Working with youngsters especially delighted Wenger; like others before him, he went to schools, "both near and far," to relate the story of the park and its people. [14] Jesse Nusbaum would have empathized when Wenger commented that he often "caught heck for being out with them [the public] instead of pushing paper."

The discerning public took pleasure in the improvements that were being made, though they were largely unaware of the arduous efforts that went into them. Pageantry in the grand tradition of Virginia McClurg and Aileen Nusbaum had commanded instant attention and appreciation. Wenger and his interpretive staff put about three hundred luminarias (candles in paper sacks) in Cliff Palace to illuminate the ruin one evening in August 1979 while some of the Navajo staff chanted tribal songs. This lovely innovation gained instant popularity and was repeated for several years, into the 1980s.

The staff also worked with the Ute Mountain Utes to train them in ruins stabilization and to help them to develop an interpretive program for their tribal park directly south of Mesa Verde. Not all the significant ruins fell within the park's boundaries, and the Utes moved determinedly to preserve theirs, as well as to tap the potential tourist trade. Their isolated reservation stood in need of an economic boost. Although the Ute education program was the most extensive, the Zunis, Crows, and Apaches also came to observe and to receive training. The heritage of Mesa Verde was being passed on to future generations.

While that positive tradition was being furthered, the past was also willing its never-ending road problems to the present. Superintendent Switzer reported during a June 1973 staff meeting that slides plagued the roads and trails. Continual road patching made it seem that as soon as "one section is repaired, another breaks up." The expense and frustration of the one-sided struggle seldom abated, always appearing on the superintendent's agenda. To make matters worse that same year, the new Wetherill Mesa road began to "cause some problems." [15] There appeared to be no end and no solution to road difficulties.

All these nagging nuisances proved to be mere preliminaries to the main event. After an excessively wet fall in 1978, two slides, on April 27 and 29, 1979, buried the road on the east side of Point Lookout and closed the park for a month. The second slide, termed "massive," deposited an estimated 150,000 cubic yards of rock and mud. The disaster ignited an equally massive effort to remove the debris and, if possible, to stabilize the road permanently. The staff promptly fired up its public relations machine by several degrees and attempted to blunt the adverse publicity. Daily reports about road conditions were issued to press, television, and radio, and all three major television networks taped feature stories at the site. Park rangers met visitors below the slide and "satisfied many frustrated persons who could not enter the park with pleasant discussions and sympathetic responses." An apprehensive local tourist industry fretted and stewed, predicting losses up to a million dollars. The last days of Switzer's superintendency were troubled by controversy generated by the slide.

Any delight in the Mesa Verde disaster came from the school children of park families, who were convinced that they would not be able to connect with the Mancos school bus. The park school had finally closed over a decade before, with all grades now being bused. The children's joy proved short-lived, as foot trails were constructed around the slide to allow them to meet their transportation to and from school. After an expenditure of $736,500 for repairs, the road and the park were finally reopened to the public on May 30, 1979. [16] The cost over the years to stabilize the shifting Mancos shale and the continuing expense of maintaining that stretch of road far exceeded the money spent on the entire Wetherill Mesa Project, far and away the park's most elaborate archaeological endeavor.

Fires, too, continued to harass Mesa Verde, as they had for years. The average number from 1926 through 1979 had been ten a year; the thirty fires in 1972 set a record. Included in that number were a 2,680-acre burn on Moccasin Mesa and a 700-acre blaze on Wetherill Mesa. The "unique flammability of Mesa Verde pinyon-juniper forests" always posed a threat to the park and its visitors. When the mesa became dangerously dry, campfires and smoking were prohibited. [17] Fire fighting equipment, including a helicopter, and trained staff stood ready for the call they hoped would not come.

As if slipping roads and rampaging fires were not discouraging enough, air borne pollution also threatened Mesa Verde. This plague posed two threats: a smoky haze that despoiled the once pristine vistas, always one of the park's greatest charms, and the potential erosion of the ancient structures by the acids in the pollution. By 1979, the park was involved in several programs to monitor air quality and visibility. [18] The great threat came not from within the park, but from the coal-fired Four Corners and San Juan power plants.

Smoke from these plants created a haze over the once strikingly clear view to the south toward Shiprock. To a lesser degree, pollution came from coal-, wood, and oil-burning stoves and fireplaces; use of cars also contributed to the problem.

Once it had seemed less threatening to build giant power plants in lightly populated areas, where industrial smoke, settling over fewer voters, would not become so politically volatile an issue. Likewise, as Americans tried to save on heating bills, they reverted to some of the more primitive heating methods of their pioneering forebears. Unintentionally, in both cases, they polluted the Four Corners atmosphere, threatening their environmental heritage there and elsewhere throughout the country. Such was the cost of modern life on Mesa Verde.


Mesa Verde National Park: Shadows of the Centuries
©2002, University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved by the University Press of Colorado

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Copyright © 2002 Duane A. Smith, published by the University Press of Colorado. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and the University Press of Colorado.