Fires burn through boundaries at Mesa Verde

The flames have illuminated - and possibly strengthened - the park's intimate connections with its neighbors

  • IN RUINS: The trailhead on Wetherill Mesa

    Michelle Nijhuis photo

CORTEZ, Colo. - On Aug. 4, Mesa Verde National Park employees thought they'd survived the worst of the summer fire season. In 10 days, the Bircher fire had scorched 19,709 acres of park land, burning so hot in some places that nothing but ash was left on the ground. More than 1,000 firefighters from as far away as Puerto Rico had fought the blaze, which closed down the southwestern Colorado park during the height of the tourist season. But few visitors were scared off. On the day the park reopened, tours of Mesa Verde's famous cliff dwellings were sold out and people poured through the gates.

"We had a great day," Pam Bell, a Park Service interpreter, says wistfully. "There were scads of people, and there was even a bear at Spruce House. But you could see the new fire growing in the distance, and it looked pretty dangerous."

By 6 p.m., the park was closed again, and it would stay closed for another 10 days. Park staffers were evacuated, and crews returned to fight the Pony fire, once again filling the campgrounds with heavy machinery and the air with the whir of helicopter blades. This time, the mood was even more serious: The Pony fire threatened to jump onto Chapin Mesa, site of several cliff dwellings and a research center stuffed with 2.5 million irreplaceable artifacts. Within hours of the park closure, the windows of the research center had been covered with a collage of shiny Mylar fire shelters.

The Pony fire burned another 1,352 acres of the park, but it stayed away from Chapin Mesa, and the park reopened less than three days after the fire was controlled. The returning crowds of visitors are seeing a dramatically different park. More than 40 percent of Mesa Verde, including much of the land bordering the main entrance road, has been blackened by the two fires. But the double crisis has changed more than the piûon-juniper and ponderosa stands that cover the mesa. Even though the fires threatened no homes and evacuated no towns, the flames have illuminated - and possibly strengthened - the park's intimate connections with its neighbors.

A joint effort

The Ute Mountain Utes have long had a tense relationship with the national park; the park was once Ute land, taken over by the federal government in the early 1900s in exchange for a pitiful sum. Although bitterness still exists today, both sides say the relationship has improved in recent years - and in the aftermath of the fires, the national park and the tribe are working more closely than ever before.

The 125,000-acre Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, which borders the national park to the west, sustained about 6,800 acres' worth of fire damage this summer. The Pony Fire destroyed a cabin used as a summer retreat by Jack House, the tribe's last traditional chief.

During the fires, the Mountain Ute Warriors, the tribe's firefighting crew, worked with Park Service and Forest Service firefighters in both parks. Mesa Verde staffers and tribal members are now working together on erosion control in burned areas, since heavy rains could cause road washouts in the national park and on the reservation.

Mesa Verde Superintendent Larry Weise, who wears a circular beaded badge presented to him by the tribe, says the national park and tribal members have been able to establish good working relationships. "Now, we're working jointly to solve problems in the field," he says.

Tribal members and Mesa Verde staffers will work in the field together many times during the next three years, when they survey burned areas in both parks for artifacts and ruins. The results might be most dramatic in the Ute park: Although there are estimated to be 25,000 sites in the tribal park, less than one-third have been documented. Many parts of the Ute park, including the burned acreage, are so isolated that they have been nearly impossible to survey. The fires have made some sites physically more accessible, and they also promise to bring in federal dollars for survey work.

Doug Bowman, a former tribal archaeologist who has returned to help with the project, says the field crews have already uncovered several dozen artifacts along the fire line, and he expects to find well over 1,000 undocumented sites in the two parks. "This is going to clean everything off," he says. "For an archaeologist, it's amazing. They didn't have to talk too hard to get me to come out of retirement."

Yes to the rain

In the nearby town of Cortez, locals have become painfully aware of their dependence on Mesa Verde tourists. "We usually serve 170 dinners a night, and now we serve 50," says Priscilla Lopez, a waitress at the Homesteader's Restaurant. "It's been way bad this year. Way bad."

"Business is definitely off, and it was already not a bumper summer," says Kristine Acott of the Cortez Chamber of Commerce. She says roughly one-third of the town's economy is directly dependent on tourism. "And there might be a trickle-down effect, where businesses who cater to tourists go down, then staple businesses are off later on."

"We know the value of the park to the community, both emotionally and economically," says Mesa Verde superintendent Weise. "When I talk to economic groups in the area, I often define the park as a large corporation down the road, one that's bringing salaried people and visitors with money into the area. That helps to put it in perspective."

Weise says he may be able to keep Wetherill Mesa - the area hit hardest by the Pony fire - open for about a month longer than usual this fall. Though he jokes that "there's no place to hide to go to the bathroom out there now," he says park staffers will work hard to get facilities back in shape.

The fires may have forged yet another connection, one between Mesa Verde tourists and the larger region. The park closures have forced would-be visitors to explore some of the lesser-known attractions in the area, such as the Bureau of Land Management Anasazi Heritage Center outside Cortez.

"Some people just can't be consoled," says Bonnie Hildebrand, a volunteer at the heritage center. "They'll say, "Oh, we came from Minnesota, and we'll never get back out here." "

Yet heritage center staffers have found that these visitors are unusual, and that most are happy to get an introduction to the world outside national park boundaries. This summer, the Pony fire cancelled the annual Hopi dances at Mesa Verde, so the heritage center decided to play host. Over 700 people showed up at the center to see the traditional dances for rain.

"It was a very humbling experience to see (the Hopis) dancing for rain, and look out and see the smoke columns from the Pony fire in the distance," says heritage center archaeologist Victoria Atkins. "The Hopi believe that if you're wearing a hat, you're saying no to the rain. So we ran around in the crowd whispering, 'don't say no to the rain, don't say no to the rain.' " For one night at least, she says, dancers, locals and tourists were all hoping for the same thing. No one said no to the rain.

Michelle Nijhuis is an associate editor of High Country News.

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