Monumental chaos

  • Albuquerque, New Mexico

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • FAC

    FF: Albuquerque marches toward the Petroglyph National Monument
  • Vandals have left marks on petroglyphs

    Photo courtesy 1000 Friends of New Mexico
  • Vandals leave their mark on the rock art

    Cary Herz photo
  • Houses lie just outside Petroglyph National Monument

    Cary Herz photo
  • Laurie Weahkee, president, Petroglyph Monument Protection Coalition

  • Already eroded trails in Rinconada Canyon after monsoonal rains in August

  • Cathy Robbins


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The shooting has stopped at Petroglyph National Monument.

Established in 1990, the park protects 17,000 petroglyphs that Native Americans pecked into volcanic boulders on what is now the city's west side (HCN, 11/1/93). Yet just a few years ago, weekend joyriders and even the National Guard drove to the monument for target practice. Their vandalism is as permanent as the ancient rock art: Bullet holes mar handprints, lightning bolts, animal figures, spirals.

"All of the shooting damage has been shut down," says Matthew Schmader, assistant superintendent for Albuquerque's Open Space Division, which jointly manages the monument with the National Park Service. The carting off of rocks has also ended, he says, while an aggressive repair campaign tries to erase the graffiti that's been spray-painted on ancient, engraved images.

Schmader knows the monument and loves showing it off. In the mid-1980s, he completed the first inventory of 11,000 petroglyphs while working on his doctorate in archaeology at the University of New Mexico. His research helped bring national attention to one of the largest concentrations of centuries-old rock art in North America.

But the news that the target practice has stopped cannot diminish the bad news. Albuquerque's runaway growth now threatens to engulf this young park, less than a year short of its 10th birthday. The narrow, 17-mile-long monument lies squarely in the path of the city's westward sprawl, with rows of homes pressing against its boundaries. Local joggers and dog walkers now join the annual 100,000 visitors.

The greatest pressure is still to come, for the monument lies between Albuquerque and land slated for development. To provide access to that land, Congress voted to slice a four- to six-lane highway called Paseo del Norte through the park (HCN, 1/13/98).

As a result, the monument is experiencing the worst of all possible worlds. The city of Albuquerque, which owns about 55 percent of the 7,244 acres, seems intent on washing its hands of responsibility for the land, even as the National Park Service seems unable to protect it from the threat posed by the road or from the multitude of smaller threats posed by people living in the adjacent developments.

Boding ill for the future, the monument is yet another point of friction in the ethnic tensions that often complicate New Mexico issues. The monument is revered by the Pueblo Indians, but it lies adjacent to developable land controlled by the descendants of Hispanic land-grant settlers. A Hispanic woman superintendent, the only one in the National Park Service, has been embroiled in battles with her staff, and her critics suggest that she was hired only because of her "ethnicity" and political ties.

"This poor monument is being beaten black and blue from all sides. If we don't get good management, at least, the future is bleak," says Isaac "Ike" Eastvold, president of Friends of the Albuquerque Petroglyphs, the nonprofit group formed in 1986, and who worked hard to help create a monument.

Management is the key issue, agrees Dave Simon, who is based in Albuquerque as the Southwest regional director for the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA). He wonders if the Park Service can overcome what he calls "management failures, resource protection failures, lost opportunities."

Others, particularly Native Americans like Laurie Weahkee, director of the Petroglyph Monument Protection Coalition, respond emotionally to what they see as the parting-out of Petroglyph: "So many things have been taken, the young people are saying we have to protect what's left and remember, value and cherish what we've got," says Weahkee, who is Cochiti and Navajo.

Schmader, Eastvold, Simon and Weahkee are among a small group protesting what they see as the degradation of Petroglyph. It is a messy fight, involving ethnic politics, local and federal control, and developers.

Perhaps because of the ethnic tensions, the fighting is done without the usual "Save the Monument" bumper stickers and public rallies. Schmader, Eastvold, Simon and Weahkee - and their nonprofit groups - work through reports, with their passionate appeals presented within the disciplines of history, archaeology, science, politics and religion.

With his gray-flecked hair pulled back in a short ponytail, Schmader is perhaps the most outwardly daring, even as the archaeologist in him spots the difference between a real petroglyph and a fake scratched into a boulder by a vandal.

Weahkee says she's grateful to outsiders who pitch in to protect the monument, but she is fiercely private about her religious beliefs and has no time for Indian wannabes looking for ceremonial deliverance.

The middle-aged and professorial Eastvold, who teaches rock art classes in Santa Fe, can still deliver torrents of verbally footnoted information, but of the group, he seems most depressed and angry over the monument's plight.

Simon, a new father, has a bunch of parks and monuments to worry about in his four-state NPCA region. But the veteran of the environmental wars in Washington, D.C., and the Southwest usually finds time to press for protection of Albuquerque's outdoor museum of ancient art.

Their concern is not much welcomed by park management.

Judith Cordova, Petroglyph's superintendent, describes Eastvold as "abusive" to the park's staff; she either has or has not ordered employees to steer clear of him. She denies having given such an order; Eastvold and some past staffers routinely refer to it.

Of the Albuquerque Open Space Division's Schmader, Cordova says, "Matt knows nothing that goes on at the monument. He thinks he does, but he doesn't."

People and petroglyphs

Most visitors, of course, are happily unaware of the passions swirling around Petroglyph. Bob and Greysolynne Hyman, who visited this summer from North Carolina are among the thousands of visitors who now come here annually from all over the world. Greysolynne, an anthropologist, says of Petroglyph: "There's an "Oh wow!" component."

It is easy to see why. In deserted Rinconada Canyon early in the morning, hawks circle overhead as Schmader roves among ceremonial sites and gracefully wrought ancient rock art, some damaged, others untouched by vandals.

Rinconada Canyon is powerful, Schmader says, because of the sheer number and placement of petroglyphs. These stone snapshots from the past, together with the sweeping views, geological features that include the cones of five extinct volcanoes, and wildlife habitat make Rinconada one of the park's jewels.

But Rinconada's treasures now stand in the way of a human juggernaut. Just outside the canyon's mouth, eastward toward Albuquerque, a bleak, repetitive view unfolds over broad, rolling mesas. Crowded on small lots, thousands of houses lap at Petroglyph like a relentless, erosive tide. From 1980 to 1990, nearly half of Albuquerque's growth occurred between the west bank of the Rio Grande and land around the monument's boundary. The pace has accelerated in this decade, as metro Albuquerque's population climbs toward 700,000.

A few builders have integrated their subdivisions into Petroglyph, as it is usually referred to, treating homesites as beach-front property that faces the attraction. But for blocks at a stretch, houses have been built with their backs to the monument, and walled off from it.

Anticipating the local growth, conservationists and Indian leaders opposed bike and horse trails in the park (HCN, 1/20/97), and warned against a parking lot built by the Park Service at the mouth of Rinconada Canyon, far from the visitors' center. Their suggestions were ignored, says Eastvold, and "the whole monument is open to unmanaged use." The activist, who spent years fighting to establish the monument, says, "We now have a much worse situation than before the monument was established."

Frustrated, Simon and Eastvold prepared a catalog of what they saw as damage resulting from mismanagement - complete with photos of Schmader pointing to problem areas - and in June sent it to the National Park Service, Albuquerque and Pueblo officials, and to the New Mexico congressional delegation.

"Rinconada is very special. It deserved and required a creative management approach," says Simon. Instead, he says, off-leash dogs kill wildlife, and vandals paint or scratch graffiti on or near petroglyphs; the trails to rock art concentrations are so poorly designed and marked that visitors strike out on their own, creating new trails; and bike and horse trails are inadequately prepared for the traffic. In Rinconada, according to Simon, heavy use has worn some paths nearly a foot below their original level, and dog droppings litter the main trail.

"Would we allow dog excrement on the approach to a church?" he asks.

"We support visitors going into the park, but managing access is critical," says Simon. Good management, the NPCA staffer says, requires guided tours, tracking of visitors and a permit system tied to an education program. To address the heavy use, Simon and Eastvold suggested that the Park Service look at Hueco Tanks State Park as a low-cost model. The Texas park put 4,000 visitors through its program last year.

John King, who oversees Southwestern parks for the Park Service from Denver, and who accepts much of the criticism leveled at Petroglyph, says a lean budget limits what can be done. But in a hopeful step, King told Simon in July that the Park Service would host a meeting to resolve the problems at Rinconada. Then, in early August, monsoonal rains badly damaged already eroded trails in Rinconada, and the canyon was closed for weeks while King waited for a damage assessment. Simon says there was no need to wait.

"The damaging rainstorms exacerbated the impacts that we've been talking about," says Simon. "It gave the Park Service a cover to close the canyon and not admit just how right we were."

For Native Americans, the impacts go beyond the environmental to the spiritual. The entire landscape is sacred, they say, in the same way that Jerusalem and the Vatican complex, not just the Wailing Wall or St. Peter's Basilica, are holy places. What Native Americans carved into boulders marks the people's connection with the spiritual world. And patches of smooth rock near petroglyphs indicate where native peoples ground ceremonial food offerings for centuries.

Even before the monument was established, Pueblo leaders testified to government committees about the area's sacred nature. Federal archaeological and ethnographic surveys then documented the significance of the landscape, and the Pueblos were guaranteed a continuing ceremonial presence in the monument.

But the number of visitors inside Petroglyph makes worship nearly impossible, says Weahkee. The lack of privacy "harms the ability of medicine clans to do their practices," she says, adding that some Pueblos have stopped praying in the park's traditional places. "These ceremonies are in real danger of being forgotten or dropped."

The reality of the ceremonies has been challenged in an op-ed piece in the Albuquerque Journal. Barbara Page, president and CEO of Westland Development Corp., and Robert Simon, its corporate counsel, wrote that for 75 years Hispanic farmers just outside the monument had never seen Pueblo religious activity there. That, the writers said, proved the park's religious importance has been exaggerated.

Weahkee says she found the argument offensive. The Pueblos traditionally practice their religion in secret for reasons of privacy and a long history of persecution by Europeans. "Just because her (Page's) folks didn't see it, that's her issue," she says.

The connection between the Park Service and Westland is substantial. Westland sold the agency 2,200 acres that now make up almost one-third of the monument. The sale brought the company a $30 million windfall. The company was formed when heirs to the old Atrisco Land Grant were incorporated as shareholders in Westland Development Corp., creating the potential for conflict between the firm's Hispanic shareholders and Pueblo Indians who feel a strong religious bond with the monument.

But Weahkee says the issue isn't about using religion to slow growth around the monument. "One of the reasons the Pueblos were in favor of the monument was to share it. It's something of beauty. It was never intended to be our own area. The tribes were very clear about this," she says.

A road will run through it

Even as Petroglyph's integrity slips away because of heavy use and lack of management, growth pressures on the monument's north and west sides virtually guarantee the construction of a road that will bisect the monument. The road, says Simon, "is the number one threat to the park."

The high-traffic Paseo del Norte runs straight across north Albuquerque, linking east-side subdivisions to Interstate 25, and then continues across the Rio Grande via the Paseo del Norte bridge to the west side. For the moment, it ends abruptly in a supermarket parking lot. Rising above the intersection of Paseo, the supermarket and surrounding subdivisions is another jewel in the monument, Piedras Marcadas Canyon.

Last year, federal legislation sponsored by New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici took an 8 1/2-acre corridor for the road out of Piedras Marcadas and federal jurisdiction and gave it to Albuquerque.

"Sen. Domenici was able to steamroller his bill through Congress in the dark of the night as a rider for a supplemental appropriations bill," says Simon. The responsibility went beyond Domenici, Simon says. "Sen. (Jeff) Bingaman's (D-N.M.) hand was also on the knife."

Before Domenici's rider passed, the National Park Service had officially opposed Paseo, on grounds that it does not serve a park purpose and will degrade the monument's resources. But with the corridor out of federal control, Petroglyph is technically cut into two pieces, and the federal agency's opposition is moot.

The bill had been debated vigorously in Washington, with New Mexican supporters and opponents traveling to the capital to testify. The Chamber of Commerce, developers and politicians, led by Sen. Domenici and then-Mayor of Albuquerque Martin Chavez, were pitted against environmentalists and the League of Women Voters, the National Congress of American Indians, the American Institute of Architects (New Mexico) and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

Throughout the debate, Domenici referred to Petroglyph as "an urban park," and therefore not deserving of the same protection as a park in a less populated area. Eastvold argued in turn that the Park Service does not distinguish a lower standard for any category of park.

"This may be a park in an urban area, but it has to abide by the same laws and regulations as any park in the system," Eastvold says.

Domenici, a devout Catholic, also worked at neutralizing the Indian opposition, publicly advised the All Indian Pueblo Council that opposing the road on religious grounds was "a mistake." He urged Pueblo tribal leaders to ignore their spiritual leaders on the issue. The fact that Domenici chairs the Senate budget committee, on which the Pueblos depend for their federal payments, reinforced his warning.

Although the city now owns the land, the road into Petroglyph will probably not be built as long as Mayor Jim Baca remains in office, but the political pressures for building it are enormous. According to the Petroglyph Coalition, the three winning candidates in Albuquerque's 1997 city council election received between 70 percent and 89 percent of their financial contributions from developers. One councilor did not disclose that she and Domenici are partners in a real estate investment on the west side. The same person recently helped block Baca's appointment of a "smart growth" activist to a development commission.

During the campaign for the most recent city council elections on Oct. 5, developers extracted support for Paseo from nearly half the candidates. After that election, only two of the nine remaining and new councilors oppose the road; the rest either support it or have not stated their position.

If it is built, Paseo del Norte will serve as a driveway to the Black Ranch, recently renamed Quail Ranch, a 6,700-acre planned community with 19,000 houses for 47,000 people. The development will spread out just beyond the city limits and three miles west of Piedras Marcadas Canyon. Weahkee calls the development "one of the driving forces behind the Paseo del Norte road."

In June, a city-county authority approved the development's master plan despite opposition from Mayor Baca and the city's planning director. In July, five organizations, including Weahkee's coalition, filed suit in state district court challenging the approval.

But the fight against Paseo del Norte has been weakened by the weakened political position of the Pueblos. "The bill put a damper on how the Pueblos could fight Paseo," Weahkee says. Pueblos can only address their concerns to the federal government, she says, and taking the road corridor out of federal control eliminates their opportunity for comment.

We'll manage somehow

Domenici's bill may have ended the Park Service's opposition by giving it a plum. Eastvold says that during the bill's drafting last year, "Park personnel put in provisions that set the stage for turning the whole monument (over) to Park Service management," ending its management partnership with Albuquerque. With that deal, he adds, "the National Park Service folded its opposition to the road."

But King, Southwestern Parks supervisor from Denver, says that with Petroglyph under single management, staffing levels, maintenance standards, interpretation and education could be made uniform.

Single management will end nearly two decades of the city's large role at Petroglyph. About 25 years ago, the city began an urban open-space purchase program that made the city the principal landowner in Petroglyph, with about 4,000 acres, thanks to an investment of $18 million. The Park Service brought to the wedding the 2,200 acres it had bought from Westland.

An uncommon city-federal management agreement that was negotiated when the monument was created in 1990 recognized the city's role. The agreement worked well, says Simon, until the federal-city relationship was poisoned by the conflict over Paseo. Then-Mayor Martin Chavez was angered by the federal agency's opposition to Paseo. He cut off the city's Open Space Division staff from working with the Park Service. When the original management agreement expired in 1996, Chavez failed to renew it, and the Park Service may have been happy to go along. Says Simon, "The strategy was clear: The Park Service was playing their own game. They wanted their new toy."

After the 1997 election of Mayor Baca, who opposed the highway, city-federal staff relations improved. Nonetheless, last fall the Park Service and the city began drafting a memorandum of understanding for a takeover by the Park Service. Although the city council has not yet approved the takeover, the Park Service considers it a done deal. The agency's budget for Fiscal Year 2000, which began Oct. 1, includes an increase to accomplish the takeover. "We'll be sole management," says King.

Just how good a manager it will be is debatable. In addition to the lack of money that afflicts all national parks, King has another politically explosive management problem - the competency of Petroglyph Superintendent Cordova.

A sign of Cordova's chaotic management, critics say, was the turnover of Petroglyph's staff. Among others, the park's chief of interpretation and its archaeologist have left. The number of actual and expected departures looks like "casualty lists at a Civil War battle," says Simon.

Last year, with Petroglyph in an uproar, a Park Service oversight review team delivered a scathing report on Cordova's performance. The team found that employees lived in fear of reprisals, and that the superintendent seemed to have abdicated responsibilities to one of the division heads. Because of budgeting irregularities, one division ran out of money to purchase fuel for vehicles.

Following the review, King, who is Cordova's boss, met with her and went over the report, line by line. "We told the superintendent that we concurred with the recommendations of the review team," he says.

But King rejects descriptions of Cordova, the Park Service's only female Hispanic superintendent, as an "affirmative action hire." However, he says, the agency's top management is dominated by white males, and it needs to improve its diversity and statistics.

More than a year after the review, Cordova is still on the job and is upbeat about the oversight review, calling it a "good report." She lists her accomplishments - turning attention from the road issue to resources, getting litter under control and educating the public about the monument. To help the staff, she has instituted workshops on communications and relieving stress, made them more aware of operational issues and has given the work force a complexion that is "more reflective of New Mexico."

She is particularly proud of a 96-page book that the Park Service produced about the Hispanic presence in the monument. It is a history of the Atrisco Land Grant, some of which is inside the monument's boundaries and some of which is owned by Westland Development Co. The Park Service sent copies to the 2,000 land-grant heirs who are shareholders in Westland.

Cordova admits the past three years have been difficult, but she attributes the problems to the Paseo del Norte road controversy. She says that committed Park Service professionals saw their values compromised by that issue.

She concludes philosophically, "Albuquerque is Albuquerque. Developers rule."

Cathy Robbins is a freelance writer who has written for The New Times, among other publications. She is a longtime resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- An overall poor attitude

- We're the good guys

- You have to show you care

- It should embarrass the Park Service

You can contact...
* Judith Cordova, superintendent of Petroglyph National Monument, 505/899-0205, ext. 221;
* Matthew Schmader, assistant superintendent of the Open Space Division, City of Albuquerque, 505/873-6620;
* Dave Simon, southwest regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association, 505/247-1221;
* Laurie Weahkee, community organizer, Petroglyph Monument Protection Coalition, 505/260-4696;
* John King, supervisor of parks in the Southwest, National Park Service, 303/969-2701.

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