Salazar visits Mesa Verde, praises future visitor's center

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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar thanked business leaders and tourism officials for the cooperative effort that helped make the new Visitor Center and Research Facility at Mesa Verde National Park a reality. At Salazar's left is park Superintendent Clifford Spencer. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar thanked business leaders and tourism officials for the cooperative effort that helped make the new Visitor Center and Research Facility at Mesa Verde National Park a reality. At Salazar's left is park Superintendent Clifford Spencer.

Mesa Verde National Park's new Visitor Center and Research Facility is not quite completed, but it already is drawing praise for its innovation while keeping down costs.

“You live in one of the most beautiful places,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a small group of local dignitaries and federal lands employees Saturday morning in front of the new building. “This park is the crown jewel of history” among the nation's parks, he added.

The Visitor Center and Research Facility can be seen from the highway and will help boost tourism to the United States, Salazar said.

Creating international tourism

“There are nearly 9 million jobs created through tourism and preservation,” Salazar told the group of about two dozen people.

“The president's goal (in his) tourism strategy is to make the U.S. the top destination in the world,” he said.

Salazar is a native Coloradan from the San Luis Valley, a rancher and former U.S. senator representing the state. He became President Barack Obama's Interior secretary the same day the president took the oath of office.

“The last time I was here,” he told the group Saturday, “it was just an open field,” though some grading had begun.

Referring back to the almost completed building, he added, “It will open up a whole new window to Canyons of the Ancients” and its related sites along the Trail of the Ancients.

Several of those attending the preopening visit suggested the new Mesa Verde National Park Visitor Center probably will be the most public face of the whole complex of Four Corners national archaeological parks and monuments.

Several attendees also made sure to point out to the secretary and others present the cooperative nature of the project with state and local governments, tourism officials and others.

“Even if you tripled our (Department of Interior) budget, we still couldn't do it ourselves,” said Victoria Atkins. She is supervisory interpretive specialist at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores and a member of the team that helped prepare tourism-related documents.

“It's really cool to live in a country where there's so much public land,” Atkins added.

LouAnn Jacobson, former manager of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, echoed Atkins: “Just getting to go on public land and enjoy it is a privilege.”

On time, under budget

The Visitor Center and Research Facility originally was estimated to cost around $19 million, received a bid of about $12.1 million, and the final cost will be around $14.1 million, said Clifford Spencer, Mesa Verde National Park superintendent.

Funding came from the Obama administration's stimulus package for “shovel-ready” projects.

Not only is the 24,000- square-foot project costing less than original estimates, it also is being completed on time, with a “soft” or unofficial opening set for November, with the “official” grand opening set for May 23, 2013, Spencer said.

Spencer said the project culminates about 90 years of requests from Mesa Verde superintendents for a new visitor center at the entrance to the park. He noted that the first such request was in the 1924 superintendent's report.

The Visitor Center, with rotating archaeological and artistic exhibits, will occupy about 8,000 square feet, with the rest housing research and archival space, Spencer said.

In addition, he explained, the building incorporates architectural aspects paying tribute to the area's native cultures, both modern and ancient. A number of Native American-oriented sculptures accent the building both inside and out.

Energy-efficient building

The Visitor Center and Research Facility also is an energy-efficient building. Power is supplied in part by photovoltaic cells barely visible to visitors, as well as hydroelectric power generated by the Mancos River from water at Jackson Gulch Reservoir northeast of Mancos.

The building also uses 18 geothermal wells to power the cooling and heating system. Other energy-saving advantages include windows with an insulating “R” factor of 14, just slightly below the R-18 rating for insulation used in most homes.

There is an automated system to control energy use and heating and cooling, including lowering and raising window shades.

Spencer said exterior lighting is kept at a minimum to keep the night skies visible to visitors.

“People who live in cities never see the Milky Way” the same way people in rural areas do, Salazar said, confirming Spencer's position.

Salazar added that this attention to the visceral pleasures of rural travel are being implemented at other federal sites, such as Big Bend National Park in Texas.