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
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
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
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
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,
reportsthe list stretches longhave 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 archaeologyand raises
funds for other projectsadditionally 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
Mesa Verdea 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
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
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
Firefighters have become frequent visitors to the park in
recent years. These were fighting the 2002 fire. (Courtesy: Durango
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
parkand nearly 4,000 more outside the parkbefore 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
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
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:
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
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."