McPhee 'flats' damage a concern

With low water, off-road play at reservoir could impact archaeological sites

Low levels at McPhee Reservoir have U.S. Forest Service officials concerned over more than just the area's water supply.

Off-road enthusiasts drawn to the mud flats left behind by the receding waterline are threatening sensitive ecosystems and archaeological resources normally protected beneath the surface of the reservoir. According to Dolores Public Lands Office District Ranger Derek Padilla, off-road vehicular play on the newly revealed flats is counterproductive to the preservation efforts of the forest service and dangerous to the history buried by McPhee.

"We have serious concerns about the archaeological sites and the use that is occurring," Padilla said.

McPhee Reservoir, completed in 1984 and filled to capacity in 1996, has long been a recreational jewel of Southwest Colorado, providing boating, fishing and camping opportunities for hundreds. However, the reservoir was created by flooding an area rich in archaeological significance, thus creating a tension between protection of the past, enjoyment of the present and planning for the future.

During construction of the reservoir, workers surveyed and recorded 1,626 archaeological sites on more than 16,000 acres as part of the Dolores Archaeological Program. Program archaeologists fully excavated 125 sites, collecting more than 1.5 million artifacts. However, much of the history of the ancient people groups from Southwest Colorado remained in the ground, covered over by the rising waters of the reservoir.

Now, as the water slowly disappears, many of those delicate sites and artifacts are being threatened by the unusual use of the area.

"The Native Americans of the past utilized the area quite extensively with what appears to be many hunting camps," Padilla said. "Even normal wave action and things like that reveal prehistoric human remains and other just run-of-the-mill-type archaeological artifacts. Now, with the unique usage that we are seeing there is a huge potential for damage."

Padilla said the public lands office has received calls regarding off-road vehicles as well as full-sized four-wheel-drive vehicles "mud bogging" on the flats of McPhee, drivers apparently not realizing the damage their fun could do on the fragile terrain. While the draw of unclaimed land is understandable, Padilla noted the area under the waters of McPhee is considered an "A Area" in travel management terms, land that is always off-limits for off-road vehicles.

Padilla was careful to note Forest Service officials do not want to limit access to McPhee, and encouraged anglers to continue to find their way to the shoreline. However, he asked off-road users to be conscientious of the impact they have on the landscape.

"In years past we have had a person or two here or there go beyond where we had anticipated," he said. "Now that the water level is as low as it is we are seeing far more usage in that area."

The Forest Service has not enforced the A designation on the McPhee flats as of yet, preferring simply to educate locals on travel rules until the new Boggy-Glade Travel Management Plan is implemented.

"Most of the Boggy-Glade landscape will be off-limits to cross country, off-road travel, so that will be our opportunity to reverse the situation," Padilla said.

Though there has not been any official enforcement of current travel rules or ticketing of inappropriate usage, Padilla did say the Forest Service can take action any time they can demonstrate natural resources are being damaged by recreational use.

For the time being, users are asked to be careful around the shores of McPhee, enjoying the recreational opportunities while respecting the history usually hidden beneath the water.

kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com