Erasing history

A report warns that climate change threatens treasures such as Mesa Verde

Apparently human-caused, the Slide fire, named for its point of origin in Slide Rock State Park in Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon, broke out on May 20. It burned out of control through some of Arizona’s most precious red-rock canyon, piñon juniper and oak riparian zones, including the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon, Pumphouse Wash, and Secret Canyon.


Archaeologists examine a rock-art panel at Mesa Verde that was scorched in a 1996 wildfire. Photo by David Long

A week after it started, the fire was only 35 percent contained and had burned a 25-square-mile area, much of it remote wilderness and national forest.

Although at press time no serious injuries had been reported and no houses had burned, for anyone who has been to the region, the loss was devastating. Popular with tourists, the area contains natural arches and is full of archaeological sites dating back to when the region was populated by indigenous residents.

Now, locals are already concerned about post-wildfire mudslides and the impact to tourism.

On the same day that the Arizona fire broke out, the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group based in the United States, released findings calling attention to the potential impacts of climate change on national heritage sites, several of them in the Four Corners region. The Society for American Archaeology also released a report in conjunction with the UCS, calling for more protection and preservation of archaeological sites, noting for the first time in the society’s history the impact of contemporary climate change.

The UCS report stated that the nation’s cultural heritage is under siege due to changing weather patterns and conditions. Links to the past are in danger in such places as Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the United States, which is likely to be submerged as sea levels rise.

Other places such as the Everglades (home to ancient structures built of oyster and clam shells), the Statue of Liberty, Bering Land Bridge Natural Preserve, Kennedy Space Center, and Groveland Hotel in California’s Gold Rush territory are threatened by rising sea levels or flooding as well.

Locally, threatened sites include Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, according to the report.

“During the last decade and a half, massive fires have swept through Mesa Verde National Park and Bandelier National Monument and other southwestern sites, damaging ancient pueblo masonry, petroglyphs and pottery,” said Adam Markham, director of climate impacts at UCS and a co-author of the report, in a press release. “Heavy rains and the extraordinary floods that have followed some of these fires have caused even more damage, destroying trails, damaging adobe buildings and washing away vital archaeological resources. These sites face huge risks as the climate continues to change.”

Cliff Spencer, superintendent at Mesa Verde National Park, told the Free Press that the park is doing quite a few things to mitigate the effects of climate change. Beginning in 2009, photovoltaic panels were installed, and then another solar array was added at the new visitors center. The park now provides 140-150 kilowatts of its own solar energy a day. The visitors center is also heated and cooled using renewable energy, with a ground source heat pump and 400-foot wells behind the new building.

Mesa Verde was also the recipient of a Southern Colorado Clean City grant, and has begun using propane-powered vehicles, including park vehicles and the bus trams that take visitors to remote regions of the park.

“We’re doing a lot and we’re looking to do more,” Spencer said, “depending upon funds and new technologies as they become available.” In the works are a visitor transportation plan that will encourage mass transit and discourage the use of private vehicles. “We are working to make the park more accessible,” he said.

Public hearings on the plan will take place at the end of the summer.

Other changes already made at the park include the installation of new water stations for visitors to refill their own water bottles, thus discouraging the purchase of disposable water bottles. “We can significantly reduce the amount of plastic in the waste stream,” said Spencer.

Education about climate change is also a part of the efforts at Mesa Verde NP. Major fires occurred in the park in 1934, 1959, 1972, 1989, 1996, and 2000, with the last one in 2002. Most fires are lightning-caused and burn out quickly, but with the severe drought of recent years, the fires have done more damage to the park on both Wetherill and Chapin mesas.

Now, park visitors can see a fire-history map at the museum on Chapin Mesa, documenting the timing and extent of the recent fire activity.

“We want to talk about this more,” Spencer said. “We want to involve the public and provide more transparency on our efforts.” Information about drought and wildfires, forest regeneration and the smaller snowpacks of the past four winters is all part of the visitor experience.

Firefighters try to protect archaeological sites at Mesa Verde, but their efforts are not always successful. The 1996 fire scorched a large rock-art panel called Battleship Rock.

In 2000, archaeologists accompanied firefighters during the Pony fire, and discovered four Ancestral Puebloan shelters ruined, along with some charred ladders in Step House. There was no impact at other cliff dwellings – the mesa fires do not usually reach into the protected alcoves.

While most of the stone ruins remain, losses are primarily felt in the destruction of wildlife habitat and plants. It can take over a hundred years for forest vegetation to regenerate in the arid Southwest.

The UCS report came on the heels of the National Climate Assessment, released in early May, a scientific report that said climate change is already having major effects in the United States.

In the West, winter snowpacks have been reduced, red dust from Utah and Arizona frequently covers the peaks of the San Juans, and spring runoffs come faster and earlier, disrupting agricultural practices and seasonal tourism. Drought-stressed vegetation is attacked by bark beetles and burned in catastrophic wildfires.

In the rest of the country, “superstorms,” floods, and unusual and irregular weather patterns hit in regions where they cause harm. Think of the late snowstorms in the Midwest, or the wildfires in Oklahoma and California in May.

The UCS warns that global climate change will affect not only people’s everyday lives, but society’s understanding of the past. Unless action is taken to minimize the impacts on the places that mark shared history, society’s understanding of itself and its relationships to places around it is at risk, the report states.

Also in conjunction with the UCS report, the Pueblo of Santa Clara in New Mexico released a report documenting the drastic and deleterious effects of a 2011 wildfire on the reservation that destroyed at least 50 percent of the pueblo’s watershed.

More than 15,000 acres of tribal forest were burned. Now, three years later, the residents of Santa Clara are still living with the consequences.

Prior to the fire, the forest and watershed not only provided drinking water for the tribe, but also timber, pasture and traditional economic and recreational resources.

Today, the area experiences annual flooding, which has increased in intensity and duration since the fire and threatens to ruin the pueblo itself. In response, the pueblo is facing bankruptcy as it plans to build a pond before the annual monsoons, to mediate the impacts of flooding.

Elsewhere in the region, directors of archaeological and heritage sites are contemplating the impacts of climate change. The BLM is working with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to document the impacts of climate change on some sites such as Canyons of the Ancients.

The UCS report recommends not only a reduction in carbon emissions, but also protection and preservation of historic sites to minimize the potential impacts of sea-level rise, fires and flooding. So far, the added impacts of energy development on public lands have not been addressed.

While much of the attention is on the devastation that fires can cause, some good news resulted from the Slide fire north of Sedona, Ariz. Firefighters preparing burnout operations discovered a previously unknown historic cabin, which they promptly protected by constructing a fire line and removing debris around it.

Coconino National Forest archaeologist Jeremy Haines salvaged an axe-hewn log from the cabin, which he sent to the Tree Ring Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Surprisingly, in this instance, the fire served to help preserve a previously unknown piece of local cultural history and will provide more information on the history of the canyon area.

But the UCS report warns that climate change is impacting everyone, and the preservation of historic and archaeological heritage is important not only to local economies, but to our collective identity as humans in this region.

“Given the scale of the problem and the cultural value of the places at risk, it is not enough merely to plan for change and expect to adapt,” the report states.

“We must begin now to prepare our threatened landmarks to face worsening climate impacts; climate resilience must become a national priority and we must allocate the necessary resources. We must also work to minimize the risks by reducing the carbon emissions that cause climate change.

“The science is clear that by abating our carbon pollution we can slow the pace of change and thereby lower the risks posed by extreme heat, flooding, and rising seas.”

From June 2014.