Canyons of the Ancients: The future of a fragile land

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Once upon a time, the arid public land in western Montezuma County was largely the province of cattle, collared lizards, and carbon-dioxide producers. Archaeologists, some long-time residents and a few pot-hunters knew of the area’s many Ancestral Puebloan ruins, but tourists rarely visited them.

And while there was an occasional push to make the area into an Anasazi National Park or something similar, nothing came of those efforts.

That all changed on June 9, 2000, when President Bill Clinton, at the urging of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, designated 164,000 acres in Montezuma and lower Dolores counties as Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

The move had been vigorously resisted by many locals, who saw it as a governmental effort to end many traditional uses of the land and believed it would actually result in more damage to the ruins by calling attention to the area.

More than three years later, many continue to oppose the monument designation.

Weathered billboard-sized signs defiantly declaring “No National Monument” still stand around the county, although some wags have suggested they’re a little like saying “No Drought.”

On the other hand, many locals believe the designation has brought benefits such as increased funding and better protection of resources, and that the monument can be a boon.

Some folks such as Glenna Harris fear the worst from the monument, but hope for the best.

Harris, a former school teacher and longtime rancher in Yellow Jacket, owns land both adjoining the monument and lying within it, something she said is “really scary” because of concerns that the government will someday curtail grazing permits or buy up inholdings.

She said the fact that the monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management rather than the National Park Service is a good thing. The monument’s proclamation allows continued grazing on existing leases, but Harris isn’t completely reassured.

“We’ve had no problems thus far, but of course they haven’t really promoted it (the monument) yet,” she said. “Some day people may wander in and see a cowpie next to a ruin and think it’s a cardinal sin and the BLM will say, ‘You have to remove your cows’.”

Jackie Wallace of Mancos, a rancher who owns tracts in McElmo Canyon lying within or next to the monument, likewise is worried about what will happen to her grazing rights in the long term. Already, she said, the BLM has told her the grazing permit she holds in Rock Canyon will be canceled after she dies rather than passed on to anyone else.

The BLM has started the lengthy process of developing a new management plan for the area, something that causes Wallace further worry. An 11-member citizens’ advisory committee was selected in June to help develop the plan.

“We’re concerned with it (the planning),” Wallace said. “I’m afraid we won’t be able to do anything on our own land out there.”

The monument designation does nothing to protect ruins, she asserted.

“All they did by making this a monument is holler at people and say, ‘We got something here none of you know about, better check it out!’”

A huge headache

That’s a sentiment echoed by many. “In my opinion it has invited additional people into the area and it’s getting more traffic than it would have if we hadn’t ballyhooed it,” said Dale Slavens of Cortez, a longtime member of the Four Corners Trail Club, a which advocates responsible off-road-vehicle and snowmobile use.

There’s no doubt visitation has increased. Fifteen years ago, Sand Canyon, a trail beginning in McElmo Canyon, saw only a few hundred visitors annually, but today approximately 17,000 users flock there each year. Hikers, pet dogs, mountain-bikers and horseback riders jostle on the trails or carve new ones across fragile crytobiotic soil. Potsherds have largely disappeared, and some long-time observers say the number of small animals such as lizards is down.

Overall, the monument gets some 45,000 visitors annually, according to automated trail counters at sites such as Sand Canyon and the Painted Hand Ruin near Hovenweep National Monument.

Owners such as Wallace and Harris who have lands near the monument worry about trespassers, litter and property damage. Wallace said off-highway-vehicle users have cut her fence near Battle Rock and driven across her land to get to public land. The problem existed before the monument, she said, but is worse now because the BLM has blocked some unofficial routes the four-wheelers used previously.

Hunters and other visitors drop trash on her property, too, she said.

Harris said acquaintances who lived near Sand Canyon told her about hikers leaving “one mess after another,” particularly before there were portable toilets at the site. She said the more people who visit the monument, the more damage there likely will be to the fragile landscape as well as ancient ruins and artifacts.

“Before, a lot of people didn’t know it was there,” she said. Of one particular seldom-visited canyon with well-preserved ruins, she said, “It’s neat now, but when 1400 people go trampling through it, we’ll see what’s left.”

But others argue that the increase in visitation would have happened without the monument proclamation.

“Sand Canyon was well on its way to becoming a huge headache before anyone mentioned the monument,” said Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based environmental nonprofit.

He believes the monument is a plus because of the extra funds it will bring. “To deal with the crush of people coming to Colorado and the Southwest, you have to have resources, and the monument was a way to get those,” he said.

“I think Bruce Babbitt probably had a good long-term vision, and 20 or 50 years from now people will look back and say, ‘He helped protect one of the greatest archaeological treasures in North America’.”

Extra funding

Monument Manager LouAnn Jacobson agrees the extra funding has been a plus.

“The area has certainly gotten more attention within the Bureau of Land Management,” she said. “As a result, we have gotten some more money — never as much as we want, of course.” The funds enabled the BLM to hire additional personnel, including a second law-enforcement ranger, and to replace a roof over a kiva at Lowry Ruin, the only developed site on the monument.

The designation also helped Canyons of the Ancients nab a $60,500 grant from the state historical fund to replace an ugly chain-link fence at Cannonball Ruin and backfill parts of the site that were left exposed after an excavation in the early 1900s, Jacobson explained.

She said the monument’s new fame has helped bring in funds for other projects such as an inventory of roads and trails on the monument; a land-health assessment done in 2000; a study of riparian zones; and a 10,000-acre inventory of cultural sites and their condition. A survey by the nonprofit Colorado Natural Heritage Program is under way to collect data on reptiles as well.

She said most of the grazing allotments were rested on the monument this year, but that was because of the drought, not any intention on the BLM’s part to take away grazing rights.

Jacobson said there has been an increase in incidents of vandalism and pot-hunting over the past two years, but it is probably attributable to better reporting rather than a sudden surge in visitors.

“There may be a couple of places where signs were damaged that the vandalism is an expression of anti-monument sentiment,” she said, “but otherwise I don’t see it (the illegal activity) as directly tied to the monument (status).”

And while damage is occurring in the area, more groups are volunteering to help counter problems. A site-stewardship program has been created by the BLM and Four Corners Heritage Council to train volunteers to watch over cultural sites and report abuses.

A couple of years ago, Chuck McAfee of Lewis started an informal group called Friends of the Monument to “try to blunt the continuing cacophony of noise that said how bad the monument was.” Members spent a day last summer digging thistles in a burned area.

Also, the Four Corners Trail Club continues its longtime practice of regularly picking up trash along popular vehicle routes, with help from the Mesa Verde Backcountry Horsemen.

Jacobson believes that managing recreation and grazing will be the biggest challenges facing the advisory committee and the monument as a whole. But not everyone agrees.

Sensing hostility

Pearson of the San Juan Citizens Alliance said he is more concerned about the impacts of oil and gas extraction. Canyons of the Ancients contains one of the nation’s largest producing carbon-dioxide fields, as well as some oil and natural-gas deposits.

Controversy erupted in the summer of 2002 over proposed seismic exploration for oil and gas on a remote part of the monument. The SJCA and three other groups obtained a temporary injunction that halted the testing until certain concerns were addressed. Pearson said he is disappointed by the reclamation done by Western Geophysical after the exploration.

“There are vast parallel tracks criss-crossing the desert” left by the giant wheels of the seismic trucks, Pearson said. He said he also found the reclamation of four old CO2 wells by Kinder-Morgan, the carbon-dioxide-extraction company, to be inadequate.

Jacobson, however, said all those sites were damaged by drought. Spring rains followed by a blistering summer caused plants to sprout, then wither, after re-seeding, she said.

Mark Varien, a member of the monument-planning advisory committee and director of research at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, believes concern about the seismic exploration was based largely on misconceptions.

“You saw editorials all over the country that implied those cultural resources were going to be pillaged, not protected,” he said. “I felt that really misstated the reality.”

The seismic testing was done under supervision by archaeologists to make sure that ancient sites were avoided, he noted. “There are laws that dictate the activities that have to be done to protect cultural resources when oil and gas development occur, and it seems in most cases those companies play by those rules.”

Varien said he has noted one unfortunate effect of the monument’s creation. “As a researcher I would say it has alienated people who live adjacent to the monument, and their willingness to cooperate with archaeologists has diminished.”

In the mid-1990s, he said, Crow Canyon mapped numerous archaeological sites and received “close to 100 percent” cooperation from private landowners.

A similar project was conducted over the past two summers, he said, and many landowners not only refused permission to visit sites on their land but denied access across their land to public sites.

“I’ve hiked out there since I came here in 1979, and gates that were never locked have locks now,” he said. “The biggest effect I’ve noticed is the hostility of some landowners.”

Miscelle Allison of Pleasant View understands that hostility. She is firmly convinced the monument designation was not only a mistake, it was illegal.

Time to move on?

“Using the Antiquities Act to create Canyons of the Ancients was a gross abuse,” she said.

The 1906 Antiquities Act states, in part, “That the President of the United States is hereby authorized… to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government… to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects.”

“Do you think 164,000 acres is the smallest area possible?” Allison asked.

She said the designation was “just a control thing” pushed by “cubicle freaks with a one-size-fits-all mentality.”

Allison said she would like to see the monument return to its previous, lower-profile status as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. That would reassure locals that multiple use will continue, she said.

But others say it’s time to accept the monument and move forward. “It’s here and we want to make it the best possible thing for the community,” said Varien. “I’m looking forward to being part of the advisory committee.”

McAfee said Canyons of the Ancients will help protect not only the cultural resources within it, but the natural landscape and wildlife as well.

“I can’t see why the establishment of the monument is harmful,” he said.

County Commissioner Kelly Wilson said the designation was a mistake but that it’s a moot point now. “We have a monument whether people like it or not. We have to fix it so we can live with it.”

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From September 2003.