An ancient place to wonder about our survival

 

I’ll never forget losing two clients somewhere in the 164,000-acre Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southern Colorado. On a glorious May morning, the two friends walked too fast ahead of the group I was leading for the Smithsonian Associates Program. The couple disappeared, and the other members of the tour were worried.

Anxiously, they asked, “Will you find them?” I explained that Canyons of the Ancients was a new BLM national monument proclaimed by President Bill Clinton. He’d set it aside because it has the highest known density of archaeological sites in the nation in a rugged landscape that “offers an unparalleled opportunity to observe, study and experience how cultures lived and adapted over time in the American Southwest.” That was all well and good, but folks on the tour wanted to know if I’d find their two friends.

“Sure,” I said, and pointed to the sky where four turkey buzzards slowly circled. “We’ll find them, but I can’t say when.”

We found the strays in about 10 minutes, and after that the group stayed close to me. Canyons of the Ancients seems to inspire people to roam. It’s a stunning setting with its multi-colored sandstone layers, hidden small cliff dwellings and the palpable presence of a missing people now called Ancestral Puebloans.

Unlike Mesa Verde National Park, which attracts 600,000 yearly visitors, Canyons of the Ancients hosts only 45,000 annual visitors in its vast outdoor museum with no asphalt paths, interpretive signs or excessive rules. Potsherds and arrowhead flakes remain in place. I’ve encountered visitors on foot, on horseback, and on mountain bikes, often with canine companions. I’ve dubbed one extremely remote ruin the “invisible ruin” because it can only be seen with binoculars in very special light. And that’s what the Canyons are all about—exploration, discovery, and understanding the prehistoric past slowly as awareness of the landscape increases in different weather and light.

It’s a fairly pristine desert landscape. When former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recommended national monument status for the area to President Clinton, he said, “this landscape offers us a chance to study an entire culture, one that may have been as rich and diverse as the one we have today.” He argued that archaeological sites should not just be protected individually, “but rather as part of a landscape or ‘anthropological ecosystem.’” He said, “The real science on these landscapes doesn’t come out of digging out a room and extracting a few pots. The real discoveries today come from asking the deeper question of ‘How did communities live in spiritual and physical equilibrium with the landscape?’”

That’s a question we’d still love to answer. But here’s the rub: Over 85 percent of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is leased for oil, gas, and CO2 exploration, and revenues from those fluid minerals are a vital part of the budget of Colorado’s Montezuma County. The Anasazi chose a beautiful place to live and farm, but it happens to lie atop the largest carbon dioxide dome in the world. Ironically, even though CO2 is the chief culprit causing global warming, corporations drill for it because the gas is pumped deep into the earth to force the last drop out of aging oil wells.

In the last half-century, 190 wells have been drilled within the monument’s boundaries, but future plans may call for as many as 1,000 new wells. All will bring accompanying roads and inevitable damage to archaeological sites. In Canyons of the Ancients, America’s prehistoric past and its energy future are about to collide.

There’s no doubt that the monument represents world-class resources, yet federal land managers and the public need to think about drilling impacts into the next century -- and beyond -- as the American appetite for energy increases. It is to be hoped that Canyons of the Ancients and the Bureau of Land Management will help re-define the protection of archaeological resources on a landscape-level in the 21st century.

We have a lot to learn from the Ancestral Puebloans. Estimates are that there were more of them living in what is now Montezuma County in the year 1200, than there are residents living there now. And they somehow survived in the arid Southwest for 800 years.

Given our heavy water usage and demand for energy, how many centuries will we be able to survive and thrive?

Andy Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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