The following case study is part of a forthcoming NPS handbook on climate change entitled “Climate Change and Cultural Resources: Impact Assessments and Case Studies.” The original author is Caitlin Smith.
In the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, Bandelier National Monument stands as one of the richest collections of cultural history in the American Southwest. Bandelier’s human history reaches back over 10,000 years. Remains of Ancestral Pueblo and Spanish settlements are evident throughout the park and modern day Pueblo people still have strong ties to the land (NPS.gov 2011, history and culture).
However, the archeological sites and remains that Bandelier is known for are increasingly threatened by a dynamically changing landscape. Climate changes such as higher temperatures, intensified aridity, altered plant species ranges, extreme precipitation events, and insect outbreaks (Loehman 2010) are expected to have drastic impacts to the park’s sensitive natural and cultural resources. Many of these changes are already being felt in the forms of raging wildfires, drought, flash flooding, and soil erosion that jeopardize many of Bandelier’s precious archeological sites (Saunders and Easley 2006).
The story of the people and places that grew up in the region that is now Bandelier National Monument is very much a story underwritten by land use and climate change. Historical climate data indicates that the region was once covered extensively by grass and more widely spaced trees prior to sheep and cattle grazing in the 1800s which largely denuded the landscape of its native grassland vegetation (NPS.gov 2011, park management). Since then, fire-sensitive piñon and juniper trees have become established in unprecedented densities. As trees became more prolific, they became increasingly effective competitors for water and nutrients, thereby further reducing grassy ground cover (Allen 2010). Without the protective grass cover, runoff from intense summer thunderstorms erode the thin exposed soil surface, producing poor conditions for shallow rooted grasses to re-establish. Soil erosion rates of nearly one centimeter per decade have been measured in the park and some areas are at risk to losing all of their remaining soil by the end of the century (NPS.gov 2011, park management; Allen 2010).
These same processes of soil erosion in the Piñon-Juniper woodlands pose great threats to Bandelier’s cultural resources, including thousands of Ancestral Pueblo archeological sites. Archeological materials are scattered and lose their integrity as soils are eroded (NPS.gov 2011, park management). Recent reports indicate that over 90% of inventoried archeological sites are being damaged by soil erosion (Allen 2010).
Drought and fire regimes also have dynamic interacting effects on vegetation cover and influence the vulnerability of Bandelier’s cultural resources. While long term drought minimizes grass cover that feeds wildfire, it also provides ripe conditions for erosion. A burst of rain may increase vegetation growth (fuel) which, followed by a period of dryness, renders the area and its resources prone to wildfire. For example, in 2000 an extensive fire burned nearly all wooden homestead archeological sites at Bandelier (Saunders and Easley 2006). Areas denuded of vegetation by fire are then again more susceptible to erosion damage. As recently as July 2011, all areas of Bandelier National Monument were closed due to encroaching wildfire. The fire burned over 140,000 acres including more than 50% of the park. New Mexico’s summer monsoon season followed, raising concerns of flash flooding damage to facilities and cultural resources (NPS.gov 2011).
The Pueblo people have said, “We have learned from our ancestors how to honor the land. Their songs, stories, and spirits are part of this landscape, and we are the continuation of the story” (NPS.gov 2010). It is in this same spirit of honor that park managers care for Bandelier’s cultural resources. The balance of climate and culture is the legacy of Bandelier, one that must be carried on in order to protect the treasures of the past for the benefit of the future.
1. Allen, Craig D. “Runoff, Erosion, and Restoration Studies in Piñon-Juniper Woodlands of the Southeastern Jemez Mountains, US Geological Survey Fort Collins Science Center, 2010, p. 1-8.
2. Loehman, Rachel. Understanding the science of climate change: Talking points -impacts to Arid Lands. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/NRR—2010/224. National Park Service: 2010, Fort Collins, Colorado.
3. National Park Service, Bandelier National Monument, Flash Flooding Concerns, last modified July 9, 2011, http://www.nps.gov/band/index.htm.
4. National Park Service, Bandelier National Monument, History &Culture, last modified July 9, 2011, http://www.nps.gov/band/index.htm.
5. National Park Service, Bandelier National Monument, Park Management, last modified July 9, 2011, http://www.nps.gov/band/index.htm.
6. Saunders, Stephan and Tom Easley, Losing Ground: Western National Parks Threatened by Climate Disruption, The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, Natural Resource Defense Council, July 2006, p.14.
7. Williams, Craig D. Allen, Constance I. Millar, Thomas W. Swetnam, Joel Michaelsen, Christopher J. Still, and Steven W. Leavitt, “Forest Responses to Increasing Aridity and Warmth in the Southwestern United States”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 14 2010, vol. 107, no. 50, p. 21289-21294.