Monument status could wreck ruins

BLM officials need money to manage masses

  • Canyons of the Ancients map

    Diane Sylvain

CORTEZ, Colo. - The archaeological ruins of the Southwest have long posed a thorny management problem. People love to see them; the tourism industry wants to promote them. But the more these fragile remnants of ancient cultures are visited, the more damage they suffer.

Walking the tightrope between preservation and promotion is nowhere more of a challenge than at Canyons of the Ancients, the newly designated national monument west of Cortez, Colo.

"We have to be really careful," says LouAnn Jacobson, the monument's manager and a Bureau of Land Management employee for 21 years. "We're already getting more inquiries, people coming in with specific names of places they want to go." In many cases, the backcountry ruins they name aren't developed or protected, and officials can only "try to give sort of a gentle message that they aren't ready for a lot of visitors."

The 164,000-acre monument contains, by conservative estimate, 20,000 archaeological sites, ranging from scattered potsherds to standing structures. Most have not been surveyed, excavated or stabilized, and for decades their main protection was their obscurity. But since Clinton's designation of the monument on June 9, 2000, Canyons of the Ancients has drawn increasing attention from both the public and such popular publications as National Geographic and Modern Maturity.

Additional funding will be critical if monument officials are to handle the impacts of increased tourism, says Jacobson, who has asked for a budget of around $1 million for fiscal year 2002. How much of that will be granted is uncertain. New Interior Secretary Gale Norton has said there is no money to carry out plans for all the new monuments Clinton designated during his last year in office. And, Jacobson admits, "It's always an uphill battle for BLM to get additional funding for anything."

But she is optimistic that Congress will provide additional money for ruins stabilization and repair, more staff, and archaeological inventories. The monument is already hiring a new law-enforcement officer to help the lone BLM ranger who now patrols more than 800,000 acres in southwest Colorado.

At local meetings before Clinton's proclamation, Mark Varien of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez raised concerns about calling attention to the area. "I said the worst-case scenario would be to designate a monument and then not get the funding appropriated," he says, "because designating a monument is going to create increased impacts."

Managing styles differ

The ancestral Native Americans who inhabited the Four Corners area prior to 1300 A.D. left countless relics, from stone tools and yucca sandals to petroglyphs and crumbling structures. Pothunters and vandals have taken their toll on these artifacts, but well-meaning "site-seers" also cause problems.

Backcountry ruins have seen a dramatic increase in visitation over the last 20 years, "and the accompanying impacts to the resources have been observable," Varien says.

Public-lands officials manage ruins in different ways. Ten miles east of the new monument, at Mesa Verde National Park, protection is paramount. The backcountry is closed; tourists view most of the park's spectacular ancestral Puebloan sites from a distance or while on guided tours.

But few land managers have the resources or the inclination to safeguard archaeological sites in such a manner. Instead, they try to funnel visitors to more developed ruins and minimize recreation at lesser-known sites.

Officials at the Southeast Utah group of national parks and monuments, which includes Canyonlands, Arches, Hovenweep and Natural Bridges, have developed a cultural-site information policy, explains Paul Henderson, the group's chief of interpretation and visitor services.

Ruins are categorized on a four-point scale. Class 1 contains sites that are widely known, Henderson says: "We readily disclose them to the public; they have a long history of tourist use." Class 4 sites are so fragile they're officially closed to visitation. "We withhold information about them from the public, and even from park staff. If people find them on their own, that's fine," Henderson says. Only Class 1 and Class 2 sites are depicted in park brochures and trail guides, he says.

Envisioning an outdoor museum

At Canyons of the Ancients, Jacobson hopes to follow the strategy of drawing visitors to a few major sites and leaving the rest, most of which are unimpressive rubble mounds, to the adventurous to find.

The BLM has not yet written a long-term management plan. First, Norton must give the go-ahead for an advisory committee that will assist with the effort, and then its members must be chosen. But Jacobson envisions the monument as an "outdoor museum" without the concessions and paved paths of Mesa Verde, but a place where people can "go explore, hopefully have respect for what they find, and have a sense of discovery, without just being led to places.

"There's a hope that increased visibility may ultimately get us the resources we need to do a better job," she adds. "I view Canyons of the Ancients as a place where, if you have the resources, it doesn't have to be locked up to protect it."

Kristie Arrington, a Durango-based archaeologist who has been with the BLM more than 20 years, agrees education can be an effective management tool. She recalls how Sand Canyon, a popular hiking area within the monument, suffered damage as it became widely known. Visitation jumped 2,000 percent from 1986 to 1996. Careless hikers knocked stones from ruin walls, trails proliferated, graffiti appeared on ancient structures, and artifacts disappeared. "That was very disheartening," she says.

Land managers decided to push a "leave-no-trace" message rather than heavy-handed restrictions. Since then, Arrington says, "I have seen the loss of resources dramatically decline."

Varien of the Crow Canyon Center concurs that education is the key, because law officers' capabilities are limited on the sprawling landscape. "It's just too big," he says.

An ancestral Puebloan tower featured (but not named) in the Canyons of the Ancients poster and logo has already drawn interest, and Jacobson admits it will probably have to have a minimal parking area before long.

"One of the ways we were trying to reduce the numbers (of visitors) was to kind of keep the area low-profile," Arrington says. "Obviously, that's not an option any more."

Gail Binkly is the managing editor of the Cortez Journal.


  • LouAnn Jacobson, Anasazi Heritage Center, 970/882-4811;
  • Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, 970/565-8975.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Gail Binkly

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