Mesa Verde National Park:
Shadows of the Centuries
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Chapter 13:
The Old and the New

AS THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY DAWNED, Mesa Verde neared its centennial. Both America and the park were quite different from what they had been back in 1906. The park, though, had continued forward with its original congressional charge to preserve and protect the sites and artifacts of the ancestral Puebloan peoples.

That name, the Puebloan, in itself, exemplified a change in attitude and approach toward these peoples. Called Anasazi throughout much of the twentieth century, the 1990s saw the Rio Grande Pueblo and Zuni peoples want a change. These were their ancestors and, while no one knows what they called themselves, it was definitely not Anasazi. Anasazi, a Navajo word, did not seem appropriate for people who had lived in and then left the region long before the arrival of the Navajo. Archaeologists and others had second thoughts about the use of that name, as well, so a switch was made. It would take time, however, before general acceptance greeted the new name.

Whatever small tempest came with the name change, the park these people once called home evolved, too. Superintendent Robert Heyder retired in 1993, to be replaced by Larry Wiese. One of the features of his last years was the centennial celebration of Nordenskiold's visit. Heyder also presided over the increasing popularity of the park and worked hard to make the visitors' experiences meaningful and enjoyable.

Meanwhile, some issues, problems, and concerns remain as old as the national park, others as new as the 1990s. Community outreach, overcrowding, budget crunches, and tourists' experiences date back nearly a century, but the expectations for fiber optics, Internet, and computers came with the nineties and the new century.

Since 1906, for instance, the park's mission had expanded to reflect many of the current interests and concerns. It now included "protection of natural landscape, tribal and wilderness resources and values." Back in 1979, a general management plan for Mesa Verde had been developed to show this increased mission. This involved some difficult decisions, because of the delicate balance between increased visitation and enjoyment of the park weighed against the fragile cultural and environmental attractions that brought people to Mesa Verde in the first place. Among the challenges confronting the entire National Park Service looms the preservation of the "natural and cultural resources and values" of the parks for the "enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations"—the key point being "this and future generations."

This did not mean that Mesa Verde faced any greater challenge than, say, Yellowstone or Gettysburg, but each park confronted different, yet, in some ways, remarkably similar problems. One common theme, overcrowding, can be seen during the high tourist season. Superintendent Jesse Nusbaum had warned about this eighty years before, when automobiles crowded onto Chapin Mesa, and the problem had only grown worse each succeeding decade.

Nothing impedes visitors' experiences more than crowds, traffic congestion Mesa Verde style, and long lines for touring cherished sites. Only one road carried tourists in and out of the park, and it compounded Mesa Verde's problems. Those trapped behind a slow-moving motor home, or a scared driver, on the winding roads into or around Mesa Verde received little benefit in educational experiences, enjoyment, or relaxation.

Again, in the 1990s, the downward drift of the Mancos shale on Point Lookout's east slope required massive repairs. Not only was this expensive, but it was also time-consuming for traffic. When completed, the road was better than ever, but the solution did not resolve the basic problem of funneling everybody onto one transportation artery.

Rules limiting what vehicles could go all the way into the park removed trailers and some others from the road. Scenic and historic turn outs also helped a little to spread the traffic out, but, unfortunately, most people bypassed them on their drive.

The exciting Wetherill Mesa project that opened new arenas to be visited and enjoyed had been planned to take some pressure off Chapin Mesa and the major sites, such as Balcony House. While Step House, Long House, and the Wetherill Mesa­top tour offered wonderful opportunities to learn and see, they did not provide the relief anticipated. Only 10 percent or so of the tourists traveled in that new direction, a little help certainly, but the increasing number of sightseers on a summer's day kept increasing the pressure. Apparently, most tourists felt they had not really seen Mesa Verde until they toured Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree, Balcony House, or the Mesa Top Loop Road.

The popularity of these recognizable ruins forced the Park Service to limit access, except to Spruce Tree House, which had both self-guided and ranger-conducted tours available. The size of guided tours was limited, and visitors had to stop at the visitors' center at Far View to obtain tickets for specific times. Early on a summer morning, the line stretched long, and, before too much time had passed, the tours were full. This, of course, upset some people, but it had to be done to preserve the ruins and also each person's experience.

A longtime plan to ease some of these problems aimed to move the park headquarters, museum, and research center down to the park entrance. Casual visitors could see and sample without having to drive into Mesa Verde and then be merrily on their vacation way. While this idea might seem almost heretical to those who cherish the park, there were many who only wanted to sample what it had to offer. This way they could avoid driving that distance to the sites while checking off another spot on their trip. Some folks actually seem disappointed when they realize that the mesa and canyon sites are all there is to "see" in the park.

In 2002, plans were being made and funds raised to accomplish the opening phase of this plan for a Mesa Verde Cultural Center. This concept holds promise of reducing traffic and congestion and, with the archives moved to the entrance, would definitely aid scholars. Still in their infancy, these plans will take time and financing to reach reality. To help develop the center and aid and promote other activities within the park, the Mesa Verde Foundation was created in 1997.

We can love Mesa Verde to death. That theme is nearly as old as the park or, assuredly, dates back to when the automobile first chugged up the grade and across the mesa. Congestion eventually followed. A fragile park in all respects, Mesa Verde had much to lose, from sites to sights. Plans, strategic plans, five-year strategies, reports—the list stretches long—have all tackled the problem. The answer to the popularity crisis perhaps will eventually lie in limiting the number of visitors per day, not just to Balcony House and Cliff Palace, but to the park itself. Something cries to be done eventually. As a national and world cultural heritage treasure, Mesa Verde must be preserved.

maintenance workers
Maintenance continues as tourists visit Spruce Tree House. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Another fundamental question raised by these problems and discussions was what represented "good" tourism and/or the "right" kind of tourism. This issue faced the entire west, not just southwestern Colorado, which depends on Mesa Verde as one of its primary tourist attractions. The park provides a major economic windfall for neighboring Cortez and, to a lesser degree, Mancos and Durango. When a fire or road problem closes the park, the local economy suffers, and the impact spreads.

No agreement has surfaced about "good" or "right." Conversely, can there be such a thing as "bad" tourism that tends to destroy distinctiveness and threaten the environment? In the financial sense, does tourism always pay? There exists no consensus on these questions either. Behind it all lurks the fundamental question of growth and what it does to communities, parks, and the quality of life so cherished by visitors and locals alike. The solutions will not be easy nor agreeable to all persons.

These questions are not new, just more urgent and in better focus. Durango, Cortez, and Mancos obviously want to reap the benefits of tourism and seek to expand those without getting overwhelmed, which basically mirrors the issues within the national park system. The answers lie (although some would argue that they may be unanswerable) with Mesa Verde National Park and its neighbors working together.

Responding to a 2001 survey, park visitors described their reaction to Mesa Verde. Two answers stood out. A Durango Herald editorial (March 5, 2002) explained, "Most of the park's visitors were quite pleased with the experience, and most spent little time there, or in the area." The typical person spent one day in the park (only one in four spending the night), hurried to see Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Spruce Tree House and departed. The picture that emerged, the editorial concluded, "is one of the tourists who blow into the park, check out the highlights and hit the road." That did little for their understanding of a grand civilization, or much for the local economy, which is perhaps the greatest concern for the southwestern Colorado tourist industry.

All gloom and despair, this was not, even when viewed in a cursory manner. However, the future rested on the resolution of popularity, tourism, and traffic issues. Nevertheless, the park in the 1990s made strides on various fronts.

Despite the problems, tourists still rated Mesa Verde National Park as one of the country's outstanding parks. The June 1997 Consumer Report listed the results of a poll of its subscribers that ranked it among the top five, joining neighbors Arches, Canyonlands, and Carlsbad Caverns, combined with Alaska's Glacier Bay. Bryce came in sixth, showing that the southwestern United States offered the best park experiences. Complaints about parks, including overcrowding, traffic, lack of parking, poor roads, and poor park maintenance, gave evidence that Mesa Verde's troubles were in no way unique. Of particular interest was the high rating the park received for scenery, not normally considered something that tourists came to see.

Two years later, Mesa Verde received designation as one of the "50 destinations of a lifetime across the globe," with only seven of these selected from the United States. The National Geographic (October 1999) emphasized it this way: "Except for ancient stone-and-mortar cliff houses stuck to precipitous canyon walls, there is scarcely a building in site. What prevails throughout the national park is a feeling that one must be near the rim of the world."

This kind of publicity is what brought new visitors to the park. The 1990s, nonetheless, saw tourism bouncing around, reflecting such problems as fires, gasoline prices, and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with, overall, a slight upward projection.

A host of ongoing projects that visitors might, or might not, see aimed to enhance their visits. To improve the water capacity, a project that went back in various forms to the park's birth, the old water line, was slowly being replaced. As is true with everything else of this nature in the park, careful consideration had to be taken with environmental issues.

A leaky water line connected to flush toilets above Cliff Palace led to a two-year saga. With the water threatening the park's largest dwelling, the career of the toilets was ended. Replaced by hard-to-see from the parking lot, expensive, and "smelly" toilets because of the chemical used in them, they encouraged visitors to take off on their own. As park ranger and chief of interpretation Will Morris observed, "We have hundreds of social trails leading into the woods." Finally, in 1998, more visible, "nose friendly, state-of-the-art vault toilets" took their place and the crisis passed.

While visitors would not note another development, the park employees appreciated the trailer replacement project for housing seasonal workers. Housing had been an ongoing concern for years. Nor would visitors notice that wild turkeys, reestablished in Mesa Verde, again disappeared early in the 1990s. The fall visitor would find the usual amount of deer seeking "safety" during hunting season, however. Yet visitors needed to be careful of the wildlife, as a young July 1997 visitor from France found out. A mountain lion attacked him while he and his family walked along a park trail.

The reader might recall that in 1906 the federal government passed the Antiquities Act to protect sites like Mesa Verde, a monumental occasion in archaeology. Eighty-four years later, another watershed law was enacted that proved equally significant, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Commonly referred to as NAGPRA, it "requires protection of newly discovered Indian grave sites and human remains" found on federal land, in addition to consultation with tribes about what was to be done with them.

The act also required museums or universities receiving federal funds to audit their collections to provide inventories of human remains and sacred or ceremonial objects for "the culturally affiliated tribes." Such remains then had to be returned or reburied at the tribes' request. At Mesa Verde, this meant consulting with twenty-four tribes. Over the next decade, NAGPRA meant monumental changes for archaeology in the park and throughout the nation. It also meant numerous meetings at which the tribes often argued with each other and decisions had to be postponed.

NAGPRA, in addition, made a difference in interpretation at Mesa Verde. Native Americans started to play a larger role. The Park Service made an effort "to get rangers here who represent those tribes," explained Will Morris. "And then to try to talk to the tribes themselves about what of their stories they want told in the park."

Another change also came about in hiring interpreters. Morris commented, "We've shifted from sort of a hard-core science [archaeology] to people who have interest in people, communication skills, and then we feel like we can train them in the rudiments of archaeology/anthropology and get them going from there."

Morris noted that visitors range from first-timers to folks who are "pretty savvy" about prehistoric cultures and want current scholarship and research. All told, it keeps everyone on their toes. "So, that's exciting. That's great," Morris stressed.

First Lady Hillary Clinton visited Mesa Verde in May 1999. She presented a grant as part of the "Save America's Treasures Project," sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Millennium Council. This public/private effort raised a combined $3 million in initial contributions, which they planned to grow into a $10 million site conservation program. Nearly six hundred sites would be inventoried, their conditions assessed, and, if necessary, work done to prevent further damage.

First lady Hillary Clinton visited Mesa Verde on May 22, 1999, as part of the "Save America's Treasures Project." (Courtesy: Durango Herald)

Looking back on the 1990s, long-time park employee Beverly Cunningham thought it had been a progressive ten years in which "we had come a long way." "Thank goodness," she stressed, for the "Save America's Treasures Project," which had done so much. She also discussed the "spirituality" of the park, not just for native tribes, but for an increasing number of visitors alike. The park has always had a certain hard-to-define mystique that can capture a person.

When the century turned, Morefield Campground held a "Mesa Verde Country Arts & Culture Festival." Featuring artists, potters, and weavers from surrounding tribes, the festival became a popular attraction. The Mesa Verde Museum Association, which publishes books and pamphlets on the park and its archaeology—and raises funds for other projects—additionally worked to make the park better known in another interesting way. It became one of the partners, with other park associations, in an Olympic Bookstore at Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics. For one week, some employees helped staff it, a somewhat tiring project as it stayed open until midnight.

Mesa Verde—a mystery. This has been the theme since the Wetherills first made it publicly known. Each decade produced more facts and figures, but there still remains so much to be learned, and we will probably never answer some questions. It seems a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes. The game is afoot, he liked to say, and each little discovery adds something to solving a bit of the mystery.

The nineties saw, among other things, an examination of a long mysterious two-hundred-foot mound in Morefield Canyon. After a dig and an analysis, a research team concluded that it had been a reservoir, with a 1,400-foot-long canal, from the Pueblo II period, a.d. 900­1100. Jack Smith, the park's chief archaeologist, estimated, from the nearby scattered ruins, that five hundred people once lived in the area. Just down the stream, the archaeologists also examined a great kiva, "the largest known kiva in the park." Why the people selected that site in the canyon continued to be unknown, still "we know they were very observant, very water-wise."

Superintendent Larry Wiese explained his vision about an exciting new idea in archaeology without digging:

To be able to look at any site and know the correct story; to be able to re-create the original appearance of the site, like Spruce Tree, through computers; to be able to tell that story in more in-depth fashion to anyone in the world; and that any Native American that would come here would agree that we'd got the story right.

A team was organized to tackle the idea, and as Wiese observed after they had researched Cliff Palace, they "started to work on a way to do that, basically using computers, using in-the-field data collections, and it's turned out to be this absolutely amazing noninvasive archaeology." Another exciting development came with using computers; "where it used to take one year of research in the field meant seven years in the office, it is now almost a one-to-one ratio."

New interpretations emerged from this project as researchers "began to document every relic, plaster, and every centimeter" of the site in computer programs. For example, Cliff Palace appears to have had a "very different activity, probably split in half between political and religious societies." No longer simply a living space, as they had told the story in the past, it proved even more fascinating with these interpretations.

Fires have long been a factor in the park's history. One in July 1989, for instance, claimed 2,300 acres. The 1990s provided no exception, with an exceptionally high 40 percent of the park burning. This raised questions about forest management and sadly ruined some petroglyphs. The fires, however, had both a positive and negative impact. As Superintendent Wiese pointed out, "It's given us an opportunity, I think, to watch the development of a piñon/juniper forest. And because we now have both ends of the spectrum, we have a clean slate for a forest to begin developing, but yet, fifty percent of the park is still covered with a mature piñon/juniper forest."

An August 1996 fire threatened the Far View Lodge area. It blazed within a few "inches" of the lodge and visitors' center. The lightning-started fire, which burned approximately 4,750 acres, forced evacuation of the park and temporarily closed it. Despite getting park crews on the scene "within twenty minutes," high winds, steep terrain, and the general dryness undercut their efforts. "They knew quickly they weren't going to contain it." Helicopters dropping water, air tankers spreading slurry, and local firefighters and three special fire crews who were flown in finally contained it after five days, aided by a fortunate rainstorm. They stopped what had been headlined, "Wind Whips Park Blaze into Inferno," but not before it damaged petroglyphs.

Firefighters have become frequent visitors to the park in recent years. These were fighting the 2002 fire. (Courtesy: Durango Herald)

The cost to fight this fire topped $1.5 million. All together more than 750 people fought the blaze. A Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation Team arrived and helped with the aftermath, including determining areas that needed to be reseeded. Park officials, meanwhile, applied for federal funds to pay for archaeologists to look "for undiscovered archaeological sites and artifacts the fire may have unearthed." The "treasures" uncovered by the 1996 fire became the object of study for the next two years.

The year 2000 put Mesa Verde in the headlines again, but not for the reasons that the park wanted. A dry spring and summer set the scene. A fire, called the Bircher Fire, started by lightning on July 20, burned 19,709 acres within the eastern part of the park—and nearly 4,000 more outside the park—before it could be contained. The inferno almost reached the Far View complex before firefighting crews checked its advance. Fortunately, it did not reach any of the major cliff dwellings, but Mesa Verde had to be closed to visitors. From near Morefield Campground to past Park Point, the area was scorched. While lightning strikes are common and have caused fires previously, nothing in the past years equaled what happened this time.

wildfire aftermath
Visitors in 2002 look across a burned landscape. (Courtesy: Duane A. Smith)

On Friday, August 4, the park reopened. Ominously, on August 2, a lightning strike started the soon to be named Pony Fire, just outside the park near the Wetherill Mesa area. It quickly spread, and another 1,373 acres burned. A day after opening, Mesa Verde closed again. "Two major wildfires in one season was an unprecedented circumstance," a park publication noted. Two of that magnitude, that close together, appeared almost unbelievable. Before the crews contained the fire, Wetherill Mesa had been nearly burned over, with the loss of the buildings there and the closure of the mesa-top tour for over a year. A bleak, burned-out scene awaited those who drove over to Wetherill. Fortunately, Step and Long houses were bypassed by the conflagration.

Smoke from the fires could be seen for miles, and ash landed on Durango fifty miles away. Mesa Verde was closed for twenty-three days, with the corresponding economic fallout for nearby communities. Then the rains of September came. This threatened to create erosion, and a concerted effort was made to prevent that problem. It seemed that nature tried its worst to "undermine" park efforts.

Despite all the damage and trauma, some positives came out of these fires. As usual with these sweeping blazes in Mesa Verde, they cleared away bush and trees, opening the area to archaeological surveys that discovered previously unknown mesa sites. Superintendent Larry Wiese reminded visitors in 2002, "all of us are excited about the rebirth of the natural ecosystem this year. We are also anticipating the opportunity to find new archaeological sites as assessment and documentation work progresses." Within a year, nature had started revitalizing the land as grasses appeared in the spring, along with other small plants.

The magnitude of the Bircher and Pony burns, nearly 30,000 acres both in and out of the park, and the continual fire threats to the Four Corners region led to the federal government placing a tanker plane at the La Plata County airport. Along with it came the "San Juan Interagency Hotshots," a professional firefighting crew, which was stationed in Durango to serve southwestern Colorado. One of the five located in the state, the Forest Service sponsored three of them. This combination should allow faster reaction time to fires in the park and throughout the surrounding region.

In late July 2002, amid one of the worst southwest Colorado droughts in the past century, fire again stalked Mesa Verde. The Long View fire on Chapin Mesa forced the evacuation of and then closed down the park, destroyed three employees' residences, damaged other property, and burned several thousand acres. Once again fire fighters raced to Mesa Verde and within a week contained the blaze. It brought back recent memories.

Here, and elsewhere within the national park system, these fires re-energized the discussion related to fire control versus fires being a part of nature. There was, and still is, no easy solution. Mesa Verde developed a new fire management plan and continued its ongoing environmental impact studies, but public benefit and safety of heritage treasures had to be carefully weighed against allowing nature to take its course.

It will take years for regrowth of trees and vegetation to remove the scars left by these two fires. As the visitor guide stated, however, "although shocking to see, these wildfires should be viewed as a natural part of the ecosystem, a force of nature that all of us should try to understand."

Through it all, Mesa Verde National Park persevered as it had for more than ninety-five years. Visitors complained, as they did at other parks, that a steady deterioration of "our national treasures" had become all too common. Increased visitation, automobile and outside pollution, mounting budgets, and lack of funding all share the blame. Americans' love affair with their past threatened the marriage. For a park that offers a scenic, archaeological, and educational experience, "this requires," as a July 24, 1998, article in the Durango Herald stressed, "additional funding and a different kind of understanding."

In late July 2002, fire again closed the park. (Courtesy: Durango Herald)

Inadequate funding continued to plague Mesa Verde. There was nothing new there, except for the brief park closure in December 1995 because of "the lack of an approved budget." Parks have "no real constituents," allowing Congress, that illustrious body, as one report bemoaned, to be "able to approach appropriations in their inimitable fashion." Inauspiciously and shortsightedly, lawmakers' favorite pork projects too often trumped the various parks' major needs.

Parks do have a constituency. It is all people, and therein lies the problem and the hope. As that noted comic-strip philosopher, Pogo, understood, "we have met the enemy and he is us." We are all stewards of Mesa Verde. If we fail, Mesa Verde fails.

Will Mesa Verde persevere? Only if Americans understand their role as stewards of this heritage left to them. Fourteen years ago, when the first edition of this history appeared, it closed with the admonition, as true then as now, that Americans must struggle to preserve and 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

smith1/chap13.htm — 06-Oct-2004

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.