An experienced national park ranger from Arizona has been hired as the new permanent manager for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Southwest Colorado.
Ray O’Neil, of Tucson, has assumed management of the 76,000-acre monument, known for its archaeological sites, desert canyon beauty and year-round recreation.
He will also oversee the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum, the monument’s headquarters, just west of Dolores.
The monument has been run by a series of interim managers since Marietta Eaton retired as manager in December 2018.
O’Neil has a 30-year career in public lands service.
He previously was chief ranger for Saguaro National Park for five years, and a district ranger for Zion National Park for 15 years. He was also a park ranger for Grand Canyon and Canyonlands National Parks and was the acting superintendent of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
“I’m so excited to be back on the Colorado Plateau, and look forward to working with monument staff and the community,” O’Neil said in an interview. “I have an open-door management style, anybody can talk with me about issues or concerns.”
As a public lands devotee, he said the job is an opportunity of a lifetime, especially because of the monuments’ diverse landscapes and archaeology.
There are more than 8,400 recorded Ancestral Puebloan sites on the monument, and it’s estimated that there are 20,000 to 30,000 sites in total.
“There is so much to learn and explore, my approach is to manage the land in a way that protects resources while also providing opportunity for people to enjoy their public lands,” O’Neil said.
He said a priority is to reopen the Visitor Center and Museum to the public by spring. It has been closed for months because of the pandemic.
“We want to reopen and welcome the public back,” he said.
When visitors arrive again, the special exhibit room will feature a photography display of wild horses on Bureau of Land Management land. The museum will continue its search for a new vendor for the book store and gift shop, which closed after the previous vendor left in 2019.
Education, interpretive and archaeological preservation programs are a major component of the monument and museum, O’Neil said.
He said they must be viewed through the perspective and input from Native American Tribes with ancestral and cultural ties to the area.
“I look forward to working with tribes, to hear and understand their concerns and see what we can do to manage things together,” he said. “The tribes have a deep connection with the landscape, they are sharing it with us.”
O’Neil said he recently took his wife and two daughters exploring in the popular Sand Canyon area, and they loved it.
“It was great to see the diverse users — families, different age groups, mountain bikers enjoying the trails,” he said.
“I look at public lands in a generational way, where people become advocates for them, where we manage them today so future generations will still have the opportunity to enjoy all they offer.”
O’Neil is the third manager of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument since it was formed in 2000 under President Clinton.