Tim Hovezak, Mesa Verde’s cultural resource manager for the National Park Service, said nearly 70% of the landscape at the 52,485-acre park has been altered in just the last few decades for reasons that tie directly back to climate change. Namely, drought-driven fires.
“Before the fires, these canyons were beautiful, just absolutely gorgeous,” Hovezak said. “But we’ve lost acres and acres of trees. Now, visitors come into the park, and they just see this tree graveyard.”
Record droughts have set the stage for massive fires that have wiped out much of Mesa Verde’s piñon-juniper forests. In its place, grasslands, often with invasive species, now cover the hillsides. And with each blaze, untold damage can befall the hundreds-year-old ruins throughout the park.
It’s these rapid and drastic changes that now have those who know the park best wondering what Mesa Verde, one of the largest and best preserved archaeological sites in the country, will look like for future generations.
“Periodic droughts are typical for this region,” said Tova Spector, chief of natural resources. “But what we’re seeing now is severe droughts, driven by climate change, that are leading to more intense wildfires.”
Landscape and cultureMesa Verde National Park was established in 1906, the first park in the country specifically set up to protect archaeological sites. Within its boundaries are nearly 5,000 known sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, from the ancestral Puebloans who lived in the region from about 600 to 1300.
Every bit as important as the ruins left behind, park managers say, is the landscape the ancestral Puebloans relied on for survival. It’s part of the experience in visiting the high and prominent mesa that juts out in this pocket of Southwest Colorado.
“If we lose the park’s forests entirely, or if we have only scattered remnants, it won’t tell the same story,” George San Miguel, a former natural resource manager, said in a previous interview. “The people that lived here learned to be part of the ecosystem, part of the woodland. ... And that’s the story we tell: what they did to survive and thrive.”
Yet studies have found Mesa Verde is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
A UNESCO report said the park is one of the most at-risk World Heritage sites across the globe. And a recent NPS study found the hot and dry conditions that have persisted in recent years in the park are beyond the historical records of climate fluxes in the past.
“Ongoing and future climate change will likely affect all aspects of park management, including natural and cultural resource protection, as well as park operation and visitor experience,” the report said.
Rapid changeHistoric drought and above-average temperatures that have gripped the region for the past two decades have set up perfect conditions for fire and beetle outbreak.
From 2002 to 2005, more than one-third of the piñons in Mesa Verde’s old-growth woodlands were killed by the Ips bark beetle and other drought-related factors, park records show. Also, since 1996, a series of fires have scorched through nearly 28,800 acres – just about half of the park.
Wildfires, of course, are a natural part of the landscape, Spector said, but these recent fires have been more catastrophic, and larger in scale, because of the drought driven by climate change.
“They’ve been more extreme, and more extensive, than they have been in the past,” she said. “And we’re ending up with a more degraded ecosystem.”
Even the pockets that escape wildfires usually soon succumb to drought or beetle, she said. As a result, Mesa Verde’s landscape is changing from a heavily wooded piñon-juniper forest to a grassland. It’s a sight glaringly apparent for anyone driving into the park.
All these changes spell doom for wildlife and biodiversity as habitat disappears and traditionally wet springs go dry.
Two species of squirrels – the red and Abert’s – are gone. The Juniper titmouse, a small songbird that lives in piñon-juniper forests, has also disappeared. And the Mexican spotted owl, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, hasn’t been seen within park boundaries since 2009.
With the new normal of hotter and drier conditions, park managers wonder if current conditions will ever allow for the landscape to recover. And more common fires, too, are expected to hamper regeneration.
“It could be the new reality of what Mesa Verde looks like,” Spector said.
History at riskWhen wildfires burn, so too do archaeological sites – the very thing that draws nearly a half million people to Mesa Verde every year. The 1996 Chapin 5 Fire, for instance, destroyed the Battleship Rock Panel, one of the best rock art sites in the park, managers say.
“What we’ve seen in the park is a lot of damage to archaeological sites because of wildfire and the ensuing erosion hazards,” said Kyle Bocinsky, director of the Research Institute for Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez.
In studying Mesa Verde, Bocinsky said there are clear signs that past inhabitants of the region dealt with mega-droughts, which may have influenced the sudden migration in the 14th century. But unlike past natural climate fluctuations, humans are now causing the current climate predicament.
“We’ve been in a historic mega-drought since 2000 ... and it’s larger than what any community in Mesa Verde experienced. It’s pretty striking,” Bocinsky said.
Tracy Coppola, the National Parks Conservation Association’s Colorado program manager, said air pollution from oil and gas activity near Mesa Verde is another cause for concern. She called for stricter regulations to limit gas emissions, a major contributor to climate change.
“By addressing regional haze, ozone, engines and oil and gas reform, and climate, Colorado is poised to make effective change. We need to encourage (the Environmental Protection Agency) to do the same,” she said. “For our national parks, vulnerable communities and future generations.”
NPS not lying downDespite the seemingly dire situation on the ground, Park Service staff members at Mesa Verde aren’t taking it lying down.
Every year, crews work to remove invasive and exotic vegetation, like cheat grass and yellow star-thistle, which pushes out native plants. And, water users in the region are drafting a water conservation plan, part of which will monitor springs in the area to see if they’re drying up.
“We’re really trying to strike a balance between what is the natural process and what is because of human-caused effects of climate change, and when to intervene,” Hovezak said. “And it’s a difficult line.”
But Coppola said undertaking projects like these is increasingly difficult in the current presidential administration.
“All of the challenges, including climate change impacts, that parks are facing are definitely made more difficult with limited funding,” she said. “It’s increasingly difficult to address issues from deferred maintenance to building climate-resilient landscapes and structures when funding is both uncertain and chronically limited.”
But even if park managers had all the resources at their disposal, addressing climate change carries many unknowns.
“Our goal is to make the natural ecosystem of the park more resilient in the face of climate change,” Spector said. “But what that change looks like is what we’re trying to plan for.”