Mesa Verde National Park:
Shadows of the Centuries
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Chapter 12:
The 1980s

AT SOME POINT IN A NARRATIVE THAT MOVES TOWARD THE PRESENT, the account ceases to be history and evolves into a chronicle of current events. We have reached this point. It could be justifiably argued that the elusive date occurred several decades ago, that date after which events have not been filtered through enough time to gain the objectivity essential to an evaluation of their relationships and their relative significance. But the Mesa Verde saga does not stop at some point to wait for a historian's evaluation—it stretches on into an unknown future.

Our philosophical musings may seem trivial when weighed against the Anasazi epic. Why should we in the twentieth century presume to be the arbiters of historical chronology? A valid claim could be made that the history of Mesa Verde ended with the Anasazi habitation and that everything since then falls into the category of current events.

Nonetheless, "With weeping and with laughter, Still is the story told," in the words of the nineteenth-century English poet Thomas Macaulay. Inquisitive visitors continue to come and wonder at the silent shadows of a vanished people. After the disastrous slides and the gasoline shortages of 1979, visitation rebounded strongly in 1980, a trend noticeable in many western parks in the 1980s. A visitor-origin survey conducted in late July 1980 provided interesting information about where tourists came from. (License plates no longer gave reliable information, since so many cars are rented in Colorado.) Colorado retained its number one ranking, with 15.6 percent of the visitor total. Texas, California, and Arizona followed the host state. Neighboring New Mexico was in fifth place, after West Germany. Confirming the trend over the past twenty years, 11.8 percent of the visitors came from foreign countries, mostly European. Because of a favorable exchange rate for the German mark, West Germany led the foreign contingent with 3.9 percent of the total. Thirty-one foreign countries (the most distant was Australia) were represented. Park visitation had become truly global. To accommodate this international interest, the park staff continued to distribute handouts in German, Japanese, French, and Spanish. [1]

Bilingual rangers were much harder to come by than foreign visitors. The problem was not all linguistic. As Superintendent Robert Heyder, a California-born, twenty-five-year veteran of the National Park Service, points out: "A lot of times they may be linguistically fluent in conversation, but not especially fluent in archaeology." Fortunately, most Europeans who come to the United States possess at least a passable understanding of English. Nonetheless, recruitment of multilingual rangers remains a challenge for the National Park Service; the foreign visitor has embraced the United States' national parks with great enthusiasm.

The things that tourists considered to be "extremely important" to them during their Mesa Verde visit were evaluated by a survey in 1983. Park cleanliness led the list, followed by information about the park, "clean, clear air," self-guided tours, and overlook sites to view the ruins from the canyon rim. The priorities expected by the park's administrators, such as museum displays, interpretive signs, and park rangers/interpreters, trailed well behind the leaders. The public also attached great importance to the opportunity to see a variety of flowers, trees, birds, and animals. The public was also well aware of the pollution haze that sometimes hung over Mesa Verde, and they strongly voiced the opinion that it detracted from their overall enjoyment of the park. [2]

Except for a dip in 1984, visitor totals have continued to rebound; they reached 658,000 in 1986, still 18,000 behind the park's all-time best year of 1976. To make the public accommodations more comfortable, ARA has remodeled and added to its Far View complex, even to the point of installing a television set in the ever-popular Sipapu Lounge, so that visitors can enjoy a relaxing drink without missing their favorite programs. The accoutrements of twentieth-century life continue to invade Mesa Verde relentlessly.

Wenger, Heyder, park visitors
Chief Park Archaeologist Gil Wenger (left), Superintendent Robert Heyder (right), and a delegation of Chinese visitors prove that Mesa Verde had become an international attraction by the 1980s. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

In a new six-year experimental program, in 1986 ARA took over operation of the Morefield Campground from the National Park Service, which continues to provide major upkeep and law enforcement. The popular campground, with 477 individual and 17 group spaces, is the third largest in the park system.

ARA, along with the National Park Service, has come in for its share of criticism over the years, particularly from people who thought that it had failed to maintain the concessionaire spirit or the publicity efforts of the old Mesa Verde Company. ARA lost the exclusive right to provide public transportation within the park in 1983, but in all other ways has maintained the operations as before. Even with some problems, the concessionaires' record of accomplishments at Mesa Verde continues to be very good; compared to Yellowstone, where constant troubles led to the firing of one company, the record here has been exemplary. [3] Mesa Verde had been fortunate in the postwar years. The foundation laid by Ansel Hall had held solid and been modified as necessary; both the park and the visitor benefited enormously.

The never-ending battle to preserve the ruins and ensure that the public would always have something worthy to see has rolled on year after year. An important milestone in this ongoing effort passed almost unnoticed in 1984, the fiftieth anniversary of a permanent ruins stabilization program. From April through November, the staff carried out crucial maintenance/stabilization projects. Most visitors fail to realize that anything that has been exposed, excavated, or stabilized requires "a lot of maintenance each year, particularly the mesa top ruins." An innovation in preservation was tried—placing temporary covers over the mesa-top ruins to protect them during the winter season. The effort proved to be expensive; $3.2 million was spent in 1986 for nylon "curtains tinted in sandstone color" to help protect ten of the park's most delicate kivas and pithouses, obviously the most susceptible to erosion. [4] Those sites were normally closed during the off-season, so visitors would not feel cheated by being unable to see them on their winter tour.

Of course, stabilization is more than just maintenance for the "wear and tear" of the cliff dwellings and mesa sites that the public actually visits. Chief Park Archaeologist Jack Smith has devised a continuing program for the important backcountry ruins. Although limited by funding and logistics, "we've built up quite a record of stabilization in remote areas." The project involves checking the "state of the ruin" for signs of vandalism and developing a work plan. Smith's crew has a decided transportation advantage over its predecessors:

The big problem is getting to the places, not only the people, but water, tools, stabilization supplies, etc. We have been very lucky. There has been a helicopter available to us all the years this back country program has been going on. It is stationed here for fire fighting duties, and we fit ourselves in during the free time. . . . That way we can do this work in ruins that would virtually be impossible if we had to go on foot. It is almost prohibitive the old way; now we can fly in and out in a few minutes. [5]

Inroads from the modern world thus have their positive side.

Regrettably, Wetherill Mesa has never won public favor. Even in its best years, it has attracted just over ten percent of the visitor total. Perhaps the popularity of the museum and the better-known ruins overwhelmed it; more likely, the concept of a bus visit never caught on. The opportunity to visit Wetherill Mesa lay near the bottom of the 1983 list of attributes that visitors named as essential to a successful experience. The individual freedom and ease of access found on Chapin Mesa defeated the best-laid plans for the more regulated Wetherill Mesa tour.

The unexpected underutilization of Wetherill Mesa stimulated plans for change. It came with the 1987 season, when, for the first time, visitors were permitted to drive private cars to Wetherill Mesa. From the parking lot, the shuttle still carried tourists to the ruins. Easier to overcome than visitor disinterest were the recurring swarms of yellow jacket wasps, which threatened the public at Step House and in the Wetherill Mesa snack bar. [6] They could not be classified as part of the wildlife that visitors wanted to experience first hand.

In contrast with the low rating of the bus tour, "clean, crisp air" ranked near the top of the list of attractions, and the Park Service has worked diligently to maintain it. Of equal importance, it has attempted to get back what it had lost. At times the effort seems an all-consuming, expensive, and very discouraging struggle toward an elusive goal. Testing for acid rain (which has already showered the park), monitoring of air quality, and visual observations have continued unabated during the 1980s, with more complex equipment; each season of investigation has produced a larger data base from which to work. Down the road, if the present trend persists, there will quite likely be major litigation, because the park is enjoined by federal law to prosecute violators of the federal air standards. Assessing his tenure at Mesa Verde, Heyder says, "I think that [air quality] is one of the big things I have been involved in in my career here." The issue can only grow larger for Superintendent Heyder and his successors.

The park staff is fighting to preserve one of the great heritages of Mesa Verde: the stunning, sweeping panoramas of mountain, valley, and desert that present themselves to view around nearly every corner as one climbs the mesa or drives along the rim. The very first explorers had commented on the pristine vistas, and the government record goes back to 1905­1906, as part of the testimony on the park bill. A 1906 report concluded that the trail running into Mesa Verde "is one of the grandest and most extensive views in the country." Now, after all these years, such intangible treasures are threatened, and all Americans will lose if the shortsightedness of the present is allowed to cloud the environment and to dictate the future. The inability to control the threat of human beings to this priceless treasure speaks sadly of current priorities, as the boundaries between parks and civilization are narrowed.

cross-country skiers
One of the pleasures for the Mesa Verde staff is cross-country skiing in some of the region's most beautiful country. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

The park's own contribution to pollution was the easiest to solve of the crimes against nature. Use of solar water heaters conserved energy and helped to improve air quality. Wherever possible, the use of electricity and fossil fuels was curtailed, an innovation that saved money and eliminated some of the engine exhaust and smoke. [7]

Mesa Verde, though it honors the past, nevertheless moves with the tide of present and future. The "computer age" arrived in 1984, and the next year a computer programmer was hired. Mesa Verde held out enormous computer possibilities. With its 4,009 ruins and its artifacts, library, documents, and photographs all crying to be catalogued and programmed, the park was a prime candidate for use of computers. The researcher and the archaeologist of the future will find their tasks simplified once the conversion is completed.

Progress has also been made in hiring women and minorities, particularly among the seasonal employees. Originally, Navajos furnished 90 percent of the work force, but that practice changed decades ago, and hiring patterns became oriented toward white, Anglo-Saxon males. Now a concerted effort is being made to change those patterns. For example, department heads have visited colleges to recruit women and minorities, and Beverly Cunningham was appointed federal women's coordinator. Efforts, including Braille park folders and wheelchair ramps, have also been made to improve the park's accessibility to the handicapped. Some of nature's barriers, however, have proved nearly insurmountable in attempting to allow full access to all the park's attractions by the handicapped.

The neighboring Utes have not fared so well. The legacy of Indian mistrust and government exasperation has continued in the 1980s. The loop road on Chapin Mesa, which crossed reservation land as a result of surveying errors, incited clashes between the two factions, including ones involving roadside advertising and an attempt to collect tolls. By mid-decade, the two were confronting each other over road location, water, and sewage connections to this small parcel of land on Soda Point, which the Utes had ideas of developing. The ultimate decision may have to be made in court.

For the Utes, developments that included helicopter rides and snowcone stands were intended to create jobs and bring in revenue for a reservation suffering from 60 percent unemployment. A displeased National Park Service considered the Indians' enterprises "an undignified intrusion on the peace of Mesa Verde National Park." Negotiations, once again, seem to be tangled in a web of misunderstanding and cultural differences. [8] After eighty years, these two antagonists hardly appear to be any closer to reaching a compromise than they ever were.

With some things new and some things old, activities of the park go on. Park staff (comprising forty-eight permanent and seventy-six seasonals in 1986) still complain about too numerous and overlong meetings and training sessions; one on self-development, entitled "What I Think, Is Why It Is," drew yawns. The ski slope of yesteryear has disappeared, but the tennis court has held on to its status as a popular attraction on a warm summer evening. Its rival now is volleyball, one of the newly popular activities for young America. Jogging and bicycling claim adherents: Who could ask for more beautiful country in which to exercise? Yet recreational options for the staff remain limited; even with better roads, the nearest town is still fortyfive minutes away, and most of the backcountry is off limits.

A sign of the intrusion of the modern world came in the beautifully produced 1984 guide, which warned that "park visitors can be the target of professional thieves." Among the recommendations were to lock cars and to take "valuables with you or leave them in a secure place." Some rules, of course, never changed; parents were sternly warned to keep their children away from canyon rims and to caution the youngsters not to throw rocks or objects into canyons. Reiterating an old theme, park visitors were admonished to consider the varied altitudes of the park before they set off on hikes or climbed down into ruins. To enrich the public's appreciation of the park, the Mesa Verde Museum Association has maintained its dedicated work in the interpretive area and in its remarkable little bookstore in the museum. The Association estimated in 1985 that it had reached over 800,000 persons through its publications and sales. [9] The discerning visitor was being well served by this group and by the museum, both of which continued in the tradition Jesse Nusbaum had established for them over forty years before.

A particularly busy time for the Association and for the park came in September 1984 when Mesa Verde served as host to the First World Conference on Cultural Parks. Mesa Verde had been designated a World Heritage Cultural Site by UNESCO just six years earlier. The park was recognized for meeting all the criteria for inclusion: outstanding universal anthropological, ethnological, historical, and aesthetic values. It was the only site in the United States to be so honored. This recognition by the international community has helped to expand interest in the park and no doubt has served as an impetus to increased foreign visitation.

Planning for the conference began in the early 1980s and went "down to the wire as far as conference planning goes." The theme—preservation and use of cultural treasures—appropriately honored the man to whom the conference was dedicated, Gustaf Nordenskiold. [10] Those who attended caught the global vision of the need for care and management of the world's priceless cultural resources.

Special events were staged to increase the visibility of Mesa Verde's cultural attractions. At one of them, an Indian arts and crafts festival, the artists had the opportunity to sell their works and the public had the opportunity to experience the native culture. This idea, slightly modified, was extended into 1987 with a permanent art gallery at Spruce Tree Point. The Telluride Chamber Players, who have appeared in concert in the "magnificent setting" of the Spruce Tree Amphitheater, have added the new dimension of classical music. [11] Mesa Verde's cultural mission is advancing along a wider front than ever before; Virginia McClurg would approve.

All these events have helped to attract more tourists, delighting local merchants and neighboring communities. Durango, though, has failed to exploit its position to the extent that it had done in the past. The trend appearing in the 1970s became obvious in the 1980s, as the promotion of local attractions pushed Mesa Verde into a secondary position. Durango merchant Jackson Clark explained:

I don't think that people in Durango have any conception that they have a rare prehistoric national treasure there. I think if you go up and down the street and you ask people in service stations, garages, motels, and restaurants what's there to see at Mesa Verde, most of them will tell you, "I've never been there." I heard a clerk at the Strater Hotel say one time, "Oh, you don't want to go over there, just a bunch of dead Indians . . . a bunch of broken down houses; they have no significance." I think that's the thing. [12]

The substance of this trend to downplay Mesa Verde cannot be denied. However, by the mid-1980s, a major reason for it lay in the more sophisticated tourist analysis and promotional efforts by Durango, not in a calculated effort to snub Mesa Verde. With limited funds, the Durango Chamber/Resort Association targeted certain groups with specific appeals. Mesa Verde led the list for international groups, because they were "high on parks." The majority of the city's promotion was directed toward the national market, where Americans' love affair with the narrow-gauge steam engine made the train between Durango and Silverton the number one attraction; skiing took first place in the winter. The Association did work closely with ARA to advertise Mesa Verde National Park as part of the total package. [13]

Superintendent Heyder has tried to bridge the miles and create more cooperation between the park and Durango. Too often, however, he and others have run up against the generations-old rivalry between Cortez and Durango. The prevailing conception seems to be that the park belongs to Cortez and the train to Durango, albeit, as Heyder pointed out, "I don't think the park really belongs to any town, it is a national park." Rivalry and competition, instead of cooperation, still characterize the relationship between the two communities, and they rarely collaborate on promoting Mesa Verde, which unquestionably brings tourists and profits to both communities. Heyder has also pinpointed another problem that has long troubled southwestern Coloradans—the lack of support from the more populous eastern slope of Colorado beyond the Continental Divide:

This area seems, kind of regrettably, almost a stepchild of the eastern slope. . . . You read the Denver papers and there is very little about this corner of the state. . . . I wouldn't go so far as to say they are not interested in this part of the state, but there are times that make you wonder. [14]

Telluride String Ensemble
Virginia McClurg would have been pleased with the variety of cultural events now available to visitors. This performance is by the Telluride (Colorado) String Ensemble. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

The parsimonious coverage given the park in the 1980s by the Denver Post, the "voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire," as it calls itself, gives credence to the allegation.

Southwestern Colorado's feeling of isolation reflects not only its true physical isolation but also its lack of political power, a dash of parochialism, and a weak financial base, laced with a certain amount of urban jealousy. The debate began to intensify in the mid-twentieth century, when the development of natural resources, particularly water, and a fair sharing of state revenues became topics of critical importance. Colorado's Front Range urban corridor, stretching from Fort Collins to Pueblo, holds 80 percent of the state's population and controls its political and economic heart. Real or fancied slights of the Western Slope are perhaps unintentional, and city dwellers are often unaware of their impact on rural southwestern Coloradans. Regardless, the impression of neglect has created antagonistic thoughts and reactions. Denver, the symbol as much as the cause of all the animosity, seems aloof and patronizing to its country cousin, the distant corner of Colorado. Some of the surrounding Four Corners states have been much more forthright and aggressive in advertising the attractions of this area than the home state has been. "I think it is sad, I think they [Denver and the state] have a hell of a lot to offer to promote Mesa Verde tourism." [15] Nothing has as yet been able to reconcile Durango and Cortez or to attract Denver's lasting attention and involvement. In the end, everyone stands to gain by pulling together toward a common goal.

The impact of Mesa Verde on neighboring communities and tourism has permeated the park's history and promises to weigh heavily on its future. One issue of the past appears to have faded into insignificance, however—the specter of the Manitou Springs cliff dwellings. Superintendent Heyder observed in 1987 that the park only occasionally now receives letters about Manitou. Perhaps that regrettable heritage of McClurg's bitterness has, at last, been put to rest.

Mesa Verde National Park quietly passed its eightieth birthday in 1986. It has more than fulfilled the expectations of the women who fought so long and hard to preserve it. Compared to the amounts first allocated for the park, the 1986 budget of $2,337,400, plus supplementals, might seem like the mother lode of government funding, but in the 1980s the park is still plagued by the unwelcome specter of fiscal problems caused by inadequate funding. It is a serious concern to the park administration. With pollution drifting in and visitation increasing, the fiscal squeeze threatens to shape the park's future in crucial ways. Making matters worse are the Mancos shale and the roads that cross it, which are, after all these years, still a primary source of anxiety for the Park Service at Mesa Verde. Over $3 million was spent in 1983 for stabilization of the entrance road through the slide area. [16] All the expense and effort of the past decade cannot guarantee that the slides will not run again.

Mesa Verde has managed to escape some of the major problems that threaten other national parks, including urban encroachment, development that threatens scenic resources, and contamination of freshwater sources. Mesa Verde has been able to retain much of its pristine environment through all the decades, largely because of its isolated location and the lack of surrounding urbanization.

The final page of Mesa Verde's archaeological chronicle has not been inscribed. The region is not a "sucked orange," as someone confidently affirmed some eighty years ago. So far the systematic search for sites has only been completed on Wetherill and Chapin mesas. Many unexcavated ruins remain, an archaeological mecca to draw future generations of archaeologists, who will arrive on the scene with advanced techniques for excavation and methods of analysis. Park Archaeologist Smith sees a changing role for Mesa Verde. He does not predict another Wetherill Mesa Project in the near future, or much park excavation.

I think the future of archaeology here is a very restricted one that will be focused mainly on preservation of archaeological ruins as they are. . . . The reason for this is that there is such a rapid disappearance of the archaeological ruins outside the park. . . . I can foresee sometime in the future that there will be virtually nothing left outside the park boundaries for archaeologists to work on. So we see it as a kind of preserve to be sat upon, to be protected, to be kept intact, until there is a heck of a good reason to do the digging. [17]

opening ceremony
The official opening of the completed Wetherill Mesa Archaeological Project, June 13, 1987. Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell (second from right) challenged his listeners to remember the lessons and the legacy of Mesa Verde. Visitation in 1987 set a record: 728,569; of these visitors, 43,102 visited Wetherill Mesa. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

The value of these ruins "is in the excavation and what they will tell us."

Public awareness and concern have slowed, but never ended, vandalism and looting outside the park; they have been stopped inside it, for the most part. The Ute Mountain Utes are determined to preserve the sites to the south that lie on their reservation. With that avenue of entry closed and the park itself largely isolated from dig-and-run vandals, the prospects for achieving that preservation for future generations seem promising.

The attempt to solve the mysteries of the Anasazi continues. The path that Jackson, the Wetherills, and Nordenskiold excitedly started down a century ago stretches on into the future. Although the full story may never be known, each bit and piece of evidence expands our appreciation of those fascinating people and their struggle to maintain life in the rugged Mesa Verde country. The narrative and the interpretation are ever expanding. Each return visit to the park will provide new insights and experiences. Only the most blasé twentieth-century tourists would find nothing new to excite their interest.

Mesa Verde is timeless, a cultural park that speaks to the past, the present, and the future. In her January 31, 1916, article in the Denver Times, Willa Cather spoke for her age and tomorrow:

Dr. Johnson declared that man is an historical animal. Certainly it is the human record, however slight, that stirs us most deeply, and a country without such a record is dumb, no matter how beautiful. The Mesa Verde is not, as many people think, an inconveniently situated museum. It is the story of an early race, of the social and religious life of a people indigenous to that soil and to its rocky splendors. It is the human expression of that land of sharp contours, brutal contrasts, glorious color and blinding light. The human consciousness, as we know it today, dwelt there, and a feeling for beauty and order was certainly not absent.

Jean Pinkley, fifty years later, in April 1966, agreed with Cather and further concluded about the park she loved:

Though Mesa Verde was set aside primarily to preserve and use wisely the prehistoric manifestations, the scenery is unique, and spectacular, the animal and plant life varied and interesting, and the geology presents a good example of certain phases of earth history. . . . This national park commemorates and reminds us of the debt we owe to those who have gone before. It gives pause to the brash citizen who proclaims that our good way of life is the invention and attainment of one particularly ingenious generation of Americans. It humbles our citizens into the realization that we owe so very much to all of the people of all lands and all times. [18]

The story of Mesa Verde National Park has been and will continue to be the struggle to preserve the Anasazi heritage and to interpret what happened here for future generations to enjoy and to learn from. May it never be said that Americans failed in their trust, their stewardship of this treasure.


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.