Administrative History
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Gila cliff dwellings

Gila cliff dwellings
The well-preserved architecture of the Gila cliff dwellings dates from the late thirteenth century A.D. These photographs show the stabilized ruin from the exterior of Cave 3 and the interior of Cave 4.
Photographer—National Park Service.

Summary: History of Tenure and Development

For centuries, protection of Gila Cliff Dwellings was only the product of geography. Sheltered in six caves, the mud-and-stone architecture avoided the erosion of wind and water that by the 1880s had reduced a nearby mesa-top site to rubble. The remote, deeply incised canyons of the Gila River forks impeded intruders into the area. Even in the thirteenth century this country was isolated, with the cliff dwellings roughly marking the far southeastern edge of the Tularosa phase of the Mogollon culture.

Long after the cliff dwellings had been abandoned, Apaches drifted on to the headwaters of the Gila River, keeping the area additionally and dangerously remote. Evidence reveals that Apaches occasionally entered Cliff Dweller Canyon, but apparently—and for reasons not adequately developed in the anthropological literature—they did not seem inclined to disturb prehistoric pueblo sites. [2] At any rate, they left no trace in Gila Cliff Dwellings, and they largely kept everybody else out until the late 1870s. After the Apaches were expelled from the headwaters of the Gila River—the endemic bands were eventually shipped in freight cars to Florida—rough topography, poor economic prospects, and all the many miles to the nearest town continued to severely limit the number of people who came into the country.

Unfortunately, within six years of the first recorded visit to the ruin in 1878, the site was thoroughly rifled. After 1899, federal policies began to supplement the protection initially provided to the cliff dwellings by geography and Apaches. The establishment of the Gila River Forest Reserve in that year withdrew public land on the headwaters of the Gila from further settlement until 1906, and the designation in 1907 of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument by presidential proclamation permanently withdrew the archeological site and 160 surrounding acres from private ownership. The proclamation also prohibited damaging or removing prehistoric artifacts.

Without specific funding, however, supervision of the ruin was only the incidental duty of a forest ranger who was seasonally headquartered 17 miles of river trail from the site. Well into the third decade of the twentieth century, protection of Gila Cliff Dwellings would still depend on the site's remote location, an isolation that was augmented in 1924 when a vast area of the surrounding forest was officially designated the Gila Wilderness.

In 1933, as the result of an administrative reorganization, jurisdiction over Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument passed over to the National Park Service, along with all the other national monuments managed either by the Department of Agriculture or the War Department. Briefly, in the last years of that decade, the Park Service sought to establish a national park around the headwaters of the Gila River, with a proposal that included 650,000 acres of the Gila Wilderness and the cliff dwellings. By 1940, the park proposal had been modified, however, and then it was abandoned.

In the same year, after an arduous visit to the remote monument, the Park Service's regional director recommended that Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument be managed as an archeological reserve and that visitation be discouraged. Two years later, a nominal custodian was appointed and the ruins were stabilized, but the larger policy of managing the area as an uninterpreted reserve lasted another 13 years.

In 1955, a draft MISSION 66 prospectus was developed in Region III (later the Southwest Regional Office) that suggested the monument be transferred to a state agency. After Dawson Campbell, the monument's custodian, and visiting archeologists from the Mobile Stabilization Unit of the Park Service pointed out many additional archeological sites in the vicinity, however, the prospectus was revised. New sites and another 273 acres were added to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1962, increasing its size to the current 533 acres. In the same year, and for a variety of reasons that centered around limitations of the local geography, another 107 acres were withdrawn as a joint administrative site where the Park Service and the Forest Service could build facilities to manage their respective responsibilities.

In early 1963, shortly before the first paved road reached the forks of the Gila River, a full-time ranger was appointed by the Park Service to manage the monument. Over the next 13 years, the cliff dwellings were excavated and stabilized again, and a formal program of interpretation was finally established. Based on a 1964 memorandum of agreement and a master plan developed the same year, a shared physical plant was built on the joint administrative area. Costs were shared between the Forest Service and the Park Service, and the construction included roads, a visitor center, residences, a contact station, and a barn.

In 1975, for reasons of economy, daily management of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was transferred back to the Forest Service. As specified by the new cooperative agreement that accomplished the transfer, however, the Park Service retains jurisdiction, reimburses for costs of managing the monument, and provides relevant expertise in such areas as interpretation, preservation, and research.

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Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001