Off the beaten path Montezuma County is considering closing the only access to little-known Yucca House National Monument

The only motorized public access to Yucca House National Monument, a sprawling Ancestral Puebloan ruins group south of Cortez managed by Mesa Verde National Park, is being considered for closure by the Montezuma County Commission.

Yucca House, near the base of the Sleeping Ute Mountain, was declared a national monument by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. Its original 10-acre size more than tripled when rancher Hallie Ismay donated another 24 acres to the Park Service in the 1990s. The monument is located at the end of County Road 20.5, which runs through what was at that time the Ismay ranch, purchased by Cortez businessman Joe Keesee in 2002 following her death.

According to the Park Service visitors’ guide, Ismay’s donation was “to provide an alternative route to (the monument) and protect several nearby sites.” She was the unofficial steward of the monument for more than six decades.

Mesa Verde park rangers annually conduct three or four tours there with between 10 and 20 people each, according to Superintendent Cliff Spencer, who estimated total visitation at fewer than 1,000 each year.

But now the ranch’s owner, Box Bar Ranch LLC, which lists Keesee as its agent, has petitioned the commission to close the portion of the road that transverses the property. A public hearing on the pending closure is set for Monday, Sept. 8.

Parking for visitors to the ruins is very close to the main ranch house and outbuildings, explained Planning Director LeeAnn Milligan to the county commissioners Aug. 4, during a review of the application, and there has been some damage to crops and equipment, possibly by visitors. The owner has requested Road 20.5 be vacated on the portion that runs from Road B to its terminus. That part of the road is located entirely on Box Bar property but is still part of the county’s road system – i.e., a public right-of-way.

Milligan said even though that part of 20.5 is signed as a maintained road (indicated by a green county road sign), it hasn’t actually been maintained by the county for several years.

However, abandoning the road would, at least for the time being, cut off motorized access to Yucca House.

Spencer told the Free Press that the Park Service plans to oppose the road’s immediate closure until plans for an alternate route are finalized, a process that involves the acquisition of an adjacent property from a willing seller, which could take another year or two. He pointed out that access to the monument is granted in the deed for the Ismay ranch property through an easement.

“The easement is an encumbrance on the deed when it was purchased, so (the buyers) were aware of the easement. They were aware that the monument is there and that it is visited,” he said, “and that the previous owner, Hallie Ismay, and before her, Henry Van Kleeck, who did the original donation of the original 10 acres of the monument, knew what they were doing – knew the visitation was there.”

One of the owner’s concerns is that present parking for monument visitors is only a short distance from the ranch house, which limits the residents’ privacy, as Commissioner Keenan Ertel had noted while reviewing the closure application last month.

“I don’t think it’s fair to have your front yard used for a parking lot,” he said.

But Spencer pointed out that the monument was established well before those structures were built.

“The road actually was there before the house,” he explained. “The earliest identification of the road that we’ve found from county maps goes back to 1936 and the residence wasn’t built till 1952.

“We know that from talking to Hallie Ismay before she passed away,” he said, “so the road pre-dates the residence and they built the residence with full knowledge that the road was right out their door.

“I’m sure they built it for the convenience of the location.”

Visitors are strongly encouraged to respect the private property rights of the adjacent landowners, he stressed to the commission during their preliminary review last month. Keesee had told the Free Press in 2005 that – despite “No Trespassing” signs and closed gates on the road – visitors were welcome to explore the ruins, so long as they closed gates behind them and stayed on the road to the parking lot. He said the signs were intended to warn people off his property.

However, Keesee also said at that time the park service needed to develop another old easement and build a road of its own.

Maps show a possible alternate route off County Road B, but that portion of B is also closed by a gate and other parts of the route are presently impassable or very rough and would need major improvements.

“It will take a substantial amount of money to fix that road – to improve it to be able to have two-way traffic on it or even one-way traffic,” Spencer said. “And for a road leading into Yucca House from the south, that property’s only 110 feet wide so to make those grades you’re going to need more width than just 110 feet [to provide switchbacks]. Either to do vehicle access or a trail leading from County Road B would be tough.”

Spencer said the Park Service is in talks with an adjacent landowner who also has ruins on his property to acquire enough land to provide access to Yucca House, but this transaction is a year or two away.

“This would eliminate the need (to have) parking where it is now at the house,” he said, proposing a two-part solution.

“One is to not abandon the road now until we can work out an alternate access and also . . . work out this alternative access through the Carwick Parcel, which would be a part of the national monument by then.”

Yucca House won’t likely ever be heavily developed or visited. Spencer said that some day – contingent on acquiring the additional parcel – there might be “a modest development” at the site – “basically visitor orientation, some type of bulletin board or wayside exhibit that explains what’s there and what to see while you’re there, that sort of thing, and maybe a small shaded pavilion.”

At the preliminary discussion, Ertel instructed staff to do research on why Road B is gated and to get more information on what improvements would be needed before the public hearing on the closure decision, which has been set for Monday, Sept. 8, at 1:30 p.m. in the commission hearing room in the county courthouse.

From September 2014.