Mesa Verde

Balancing preservation, visitation

Gazing across a canyon at 13th century cliff dwellings, it is almost possible to imagine that the inhabitants still might return.

The paradox of Mesa Verde National Park is that as more people seek that magical experience, fewer will be able to have it. The ruins that are open to visitation, the trails and the parking lots often are crawling with modern-day humans wearing colorful t-shirts. After a long, spine-chilling trip up the mesa, some visitors only catch a drive-by glimpse of the famed cliff dwellings because all the parking spaces are occupied.

Meanwhile, Long House, which is one of the most impressive sites in the park, is sparsely visited because getting there involves another long drive to Wetherill Mesa, and then a ride on a tram — and that is only for visitors who remembered to buy a ticket for the 90-minute tour and can manage the hike down to Long House.

Now Mesa Verde is requesting input into a Visitor Distribution and Transportation Plan. Clearly, the National Park Service does need to analyze the way visitors move through the park. Just as clearly, the details of moving them around need to be addressed as part of a larger discussion about where they should go and how many of them can be accommodated without degrading and ultimately destroying the cultural resources that are the reason for the park’s existence. At some point, as yet undetermined, more definitely will not be better.

The main purpose of the park is not to host visitors, who will not come anyway if the park service will not, or cannot, preserve the spectacular stone cities. Because those two goals are not wholly compatible, any visitor utilization plan must be accomplished within the context of preservation goals. Commenters can certainly help the park service discern how best to fulfill its mission, but only within the bounds of what is appropriate for the park’s resources and what is even possible, both physically and fiscally.

Washington is not going to send unlimited funds to Mesa Verde to solve the visitor transportation and distribution dilemma, which has its roots in topography, archaeology and many years of penny-pinching. That alone eliminates the oft-resurrected pipe dream of a tram from Cortez to some mesa-top location. Even if the tram were feasible — and it will not be in the lifetime of anyone now suggesting it — the park has almost no ability to handle transportation to ruin sites. Two horrendously expensive systems do not add up to a good idea. Public transit may develop slowly, but for now, the most relevant questions still are where, and where not, to put roads and trails, and what uses should be allowed on them. That is a very small step toward meeting a very important goal.

That people want to see the cliff dwellings and mesa-top sites, and that at least some of those people want to understand the story of the ancestral Pueblo people who lived there and left so abruptly for pueblos to the south, are both good things. One of the lessons starkly illustrated at Mesa Verde is that too many people can use up the resources necessary to support their activities. That is as true of 21st century tourism as it is of agriculture in the late 13th century.

Comments are being taken until July 14. Weigh in, certainly, but advocate for a broader view than just traffic control, because Mesa Verde is about more than just visitation.