Fire, Soil, and Preserving History at Bandelier

Bandelier National Monument tells the story of over 10,000 years of Ancestral Pueblo and Spanish history, the evidence of which is threatened by unsustainable land use exacerbated by climate change. Hundreds of ancient cultural sites are endangered as a result. How did Bandelier get this way?

The village of Tyuonyi and the reconstructed Talus House
The village of Tyuonyi and the reconstructed Talus House

NPS photo

In the 1800s, the cattle grazing the mountainous region surrounding Santa Fe, New Mexico, denuded the landscape of its native grassland vegetation and wide-spaced trees. Fire-sensitive piñon and juniper trees became established in their place. Without a protective grass cover, runoff from intense summer thunderstorms eroded the thin exposed soil surface. Enter a changing climate—one that brings drought conditions—and the stage is set for soil erosion, flash flooding and raging wildfire.

Drought and fire impact the vegetation surrounding cultural sites and, as a result, influence the vulnerability of Bandelier's cultural resources. While long term drought minimizes grass cover that feeds wildfire, it also provides ripe conditions for erosion and flash flooding during the summer monsoon season. A burst of rain may increase vegetation growth, which in turn fuels fire. After a dry period, cultural sites are extremely prone to wildfire fueled by vegetation grown during the summer. For example, in 2000 an extensive fire burned nearly all homestead archeological sites at Bandelier, most of which were constructed of wood.

At Bandelier, park staff help archeological sites to resist climate change by slowing the factors that exacerbate the effects of climate change. For example, slowing the process of soil erosion is a high priority for park management. Researchers at Bandelier have found that reducing the density of trees, and using the cut trees as a type of slash mulch to provide an "erosion blanket" on bare soils, produces a three-fold increase in understory grasses, shrubs, and forbs. The process greatly reduces soil erosion while stabilizing cultural resources.

The Pueblo people have said, "We have learned from our ancestors how to honor the land. As Pueblo people we carry on what our ancestors have taught us. Their songs, stories, and spirits are part of this landscape, and we are the continuation of the story." It is in this same spirit of honor and continuation that park managers approach cultural resource management at Bandelier, especially in the face of climate challenges. The balance of climate and culture is the legacy of Bandelier, one that must be carried on with care in order to protect some of America's most valued "vanishing treasures" for the benefit of this and future generations.

Last updated: December 8, 2018