I went to Mesa Verde National Park to see the ruins — not the cliff dwellings, which the Ancient Puebloan Indians mysteriously abandoned 700 years ago, but the ruined land itself.
Since 1996, three major fires have
torched more than half of the 55,000-acre park in southwest
Colorado. You can’t help but notice the miles of blackened
trees. Beneath the trees, gray ash blankets the ground. In the
afternoon, winds pick up the ash in roiling clouds that turn a
cerulean blue sky sickly yellow.
It’s enough to send
many tourists packing. But fire’s beauty is in the eye of the
beholder. When Doug Paul, the park’s fire manager, looks at
last year’s burn, he sees a beautiful victory. Just weeks
before the fire, his crews finished thinning the forest surrounding
the largest ruins, the museum and the employee housing. When the
fire hit the thinned areas, it dropped from the forest canopy to
the ground. "We still had a lot of spot fires to put out, but we
had the time and space to defend the buildings and the cultural
resources," Paul says. Only two small structures burned.
Paul says lots of people interested in protecting homes and
managing forests in the fire-prone West are studying Mesa
Verde’s success story. "We’re kind of the poster boys
now," he says.
In fact, Mesa Verde is in many ways a
perfect microcosm of the West. Managers there must balance
protecting cultural and natural resources with accommodating
buildings and crowds of people. So it makes sense to have a fire
strategy that includes thinning and prescribed burns near human
settlements, ancient and modern.
It also makes sense to
let fires burn in the more remote parts of the park, where they
replenish the soil, make room for grasses and wildflowers, and do a
lot of other ecological good. Near the park’s entrance, oak
brush and other shrubs are re-sprouting vigorously where the 2000
Bircher Fire scorched nearly 19,000 acres.
Fire is an
elemental force in the West that our ecosystems need in order to
stay healthy and diverse, as Ray Ring notes in the cover story of
this issue. That elemental force will have its way, no matter how
hard we fight. Cutting-edge research is now revealing that the
so-called "catastrophic" fires of the last decade are more or less
normal when seen through the lens of time, exacerbated by global
climate change as much as the condition of our forests.
The last big round of fires in the West occurred during a prolonged
hot and dry spell in the Middle Ages, between 900 to 1200 A.D. The
Ancient Puebloans knew firsthand the hardships of that period.
It’s when they abandoned settlements on the rich mesa tops
for the cliff dwellings, shortly before they departed for