Bear and deer wander among piñon-juniper forests of the Mesa Verde escarpment, where ancestral homes, plazas and kivas of the Native American Puebloan culture remain undisturbed.
But what will happen to the escarpment’s wildlife and archaeological treasures if it is opened up to the general public?
The Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners and Bureau of Land Management are discussing impacts of unlocking a 7,373-acre area of BLM land south of Cortez. The area has long been isolated from human activity because it is surrounded by private property, Ute Mountain Ute tribal land and the steep geologic formation of Mesa Verde National Park.
“The archaeology along here is really pristine compared to other places because of the isolated location,” said BLM archaeologist Brian Yaquinto. “Looting is always a concern, and there is past evidence of it.”
During a tour organized by the Montezuma County Recreation Advisory Committee, BLM, recreationists and county officials discussed the pros and cons of creating a public access point to the public lands. Right now, access for the general public, including for licensed hunting, is possible only if a neighboring landowner allows it.
But on the west side, the BLM land borders the county landfill, and the Cortez Sanitation District has offered public parking on a nearby piece of its land.
An access point could be created on county land to the BLM fence, said county federal lands coordinator James Dietrich, and BLM regulations could allow for restricted foot and horse traffic into the area.
BLM goals and priorities for the Mesa Verde escarpment outlined in the Resource Management Plan emphasize preservation of cultural sites. The area has a high density of ancestral Puebloan archeology and was originally slated for inclusion in the designation of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Studies show the area was consistently inhabited throughout the ancestral Native American occupation of the Montezuma Valley, from the Basketmaker III period through the Pueblo III, A.D. 600–1300.
“There is standing architecture, kivas and plazas,” said Grant Coffey, an archaeologist with Crow Canyon. “It is an important area, and studies are ongoing by us, universities and the BLM.”
BLM officials emphasize preservation of archaeology and opportunities for scientific research.
A grazing allotment along the escarpment is active, and historic roads and coal mines are present in the area. The area has a no-surface occupancy designation for oil and gas production. The BLM is considering designating the escarpment as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
Plans to increase public access would involve consultation with Mesa Verde National Park, private landowners, Montezuma County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and tribes with ancestral ties to the region, said BLM Tres Rios manager Connie Clementson.
“The tribes have a very special interest in this area,” she said.
Tour participants walked historic roads, down canyons and along game trails to view ruins with BLM and Crow Canyon archaeologists.
Mounds indicative of buried ruins were evident, and pottery shards were scattered about. Exposed rock walls of ancient buildings jutted from the ground.
“Based on the depression, it’s clear this one has been looted at some point,” Yaquinto said of one ruin, likely plundered during the mining days of the early and mid-1900s when there was public access.
The debate touched on whether isolation benefits or hampers looters and whether recreationists might deter illegal activity by witnessing and reporting the looting.
“When Phil’s World was expanded into the Cash Canyon area, we have seen less illegal dumping because there were more people watching,” said Shawn Gregory of the Recreation Advisory Committee. “People using trails are generally responsible and respect the land.”
There are no plans for trail development in the escarpment area, but some said a trail should be considered because it helps keep people from wandering into sensitive sites.
Using a portion of the escarpment land for the proposed Paths to Mesa Verde Trail between Mancos and Cortez also is a potential possibility if access could be arranged and the trail does not threaten cultural sites.
A potential option to improve public access while protecting archaeological values is to promote additional tours of the area through special recreation permits issued by the BLM.
They could be similar to backcountry hikes offered by Mesa Verde National Park, Ute Mountain Tribal Park or the Crow Canyon exploration tours.
“I’d like to see the BLM and Crow Canyon partner on specific access for education purposes,” said County Commissioner Keenan Ertel. “There are some options for access, and we look forward to the recommendations from the advisory committee.”