Balancing Preservation and Interpretation at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

A  tension persists between two main enterprises comprising cultural resource management: preservation and interpretation. The objectives and effects of each undertaking are not easily negotiated in many contexts, making the task all the more difficult for cultural resource managers. Many question the utility and purpose of preservation if its ultimate objective is not to interpret the resource to the public. With public interpretation comes increased traffic, however, which can impact the resource negatively. Such degradation can, in turn, reduce the prospects for effective interpretation or necessitate a complete revision of the interpretive program. The best way to preserve a resource is to keep people away from it; the best interpretation draws people from far afield.

This tension is especially pervasive in the management of archaeological resources, which are all too often subject to illegal plunder, accidental and intentional damage, and increased wear and tear due to human traffic when the location of sites is publicized. As part of its multiple use management mission, the Bureau of Land Management’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, located in southwest Colorado’s Montezuma County just northwest of Mesa Verde National Park, is tasked with managing the archaeological resources within its borders from which its designation as a national monument derives. Cultural resource management is a critical factor in the monument’s integrated multiple-use resource management plan, which consists of initiatives ranging from transportation natural resource management (grazing; oil and gas leasing; ecological monitoring, rehabilitation, and stabilization, etc.) to visual resource and recreation management. Canyons of the Ancients contains an estimated 30,000 archaeological sites (over 6,000 of which have been identified) on nearly 171,000 acres of public land, making it the most archaeologically dense area in the United States. Some areas contain more than 100 sites per square mile. Despite a long history of habitation and changing management and archaeological practices, the area’s archaeological resources have benefited from remoteness and an arid, high desert climate. Still, looting, vandalism, and the impacts of human traffic long have been persistent problems for the area’s archaeological sites since long before its designation as a national monument in 2000.

Managing such a large body of cultural resources in such an expansive, rugged area in their respective contexts presents a formidable challenge to BLM staff at Canyons of the Ancients staff. Their approach balances preservation and interpretation quite well with the limited resources at their disposal. The Anasazi Heritage Center functions as the monument’s headquarters, the archaeological repository for public lands in Southwest Colorado, and a museum for the display and interpretation of those collections. As myriad reviews of the center testify, it is a top-notch facility for curation and interpretation of cultural resources that have been removed from their physical contexts along with their attendant documentation. At the center, preservation and interpretation obviously go more hand in hand than out on the monument. In order to minimize the human toll–both incidental and malevolent–on the monument’s sites while offering a wide range of interpretive opportunities, management adhere to a handful of policies that strike a fine balance between interpretation and preservation. Of the thousands of documented sites, only three areas are publicized and open to visitation: sites along the 6-mile Sand Canyon Trail, Lowry Pueblo, and Painted Hand Pueblo. These sites are all impressive in terms of their size, condition, and degree of interpretation. Sand Canyon and Painted Hand require a fair amount of hiking to reach sites and are less suitable for people with limited mobility, but Lowry is quite accessible. As a group, factoring in a museum visit and transportation time, these public sites offer two full days worth of interpreted experience. The sites offer a diverse, representative sample of the Ancestral Puebloan built environment in the area. A dedicated corps of volunteers work as site stewards, monitoring the condition of public sites. As an intern in the interpretation division, I am currently developing mobile-friendly interpretive websites to supplement the interpretive offerings at these sites. These will be online soon, as will updated websites for the center and the monument.

Due to limited resources available for public site maintenance and stabilization, the locations of the thousands of other archaeological sites that dot the monument landscape are not publicized. This measure is intended to reduce the incidence of looting, vandalism, and unintentional damage to the sites. These acts still occur, but to less an extent than if their locations were publicized. If the public doesn’t know where the sites are, they won’t be tempted to disturb them. In support of this measure, the monument restricts foot, auto, ATV, bicycle, and horse traffic to designated routes and limits the mode of transportation based on the route. Impeding access to closed routes is an ongoing project on the monument. BLM law enforcement augment these measures further by patrolling the monument for unauthorized use.

At the public sites, access and interpretation certainly compromise preservation goals at times. Vandalism, pot hunting, burial disturbances, and unlicensed tours are all perennial hazards at these publicly-disclosed locations. However, the monument possesses the resources to mitigate these risks to public sites by keeping their number manageable. By providing access to and ample interpretation of their public sites and a representative sample of the Ancestral Puebloan built environment in the area, staff at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument are able to minimize the human impact on countless other archaeological resources. The minimal but progressive wear these sites mitigate the same effects on the thousands of other archaeological resources scattered throughout the monument. At Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, interpretation facilitates preservation, striking an agreeable balance between the two goals in a setting where they would otherwise be at odds.

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One thought on “Balancing Preservation and Interpretation at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

  1. Pingback: Debating the value of disclosure at Canyons of the Ancients « Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance

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