Mesa Verde
Administrative History
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A. Land acquisition

Land problems of the Mesa Verde National Park have involved the acquisition of private holdings within the park, the protracted negotiations with the Ute Indians for the extension of the park boundaries, and lately, negotiations with the Indians for the preservation of antiquities and scenic areas in the Ute Mountain Reservation.

As in other parks, the situation with private properties came about through patents issued for lands in the Mesa Verde before they were considered for national park purposes. Naturally the owners were protected in their rights when the park was established in 1906. In the early days of park development, when visitors were few, the importance of eliminating such private holdings was already apparent. For instance, in 1916 there were three in-holdings totaling 720 acres of choice land on the mesa in the heart of the park and they were used for grazing. [1]

Some of the private holdings were obtained in the 1920s when Superintendent Nusbaum accepted them in lieu of cash payments for grazing permits, and others through purchase. At the present time there are only two private land inholdings: [2]

Hindmarsh232.14 acres
Sheek315.8 acres
      Total547.94 acres

Outside of the inholdings, two other parcels of land were added to the park through Congressional legislation. H. R. 15876, approved by Congress and signed by the President on February 26, 1931, permitted him to enlarge the existing boundaries of the park by proclamation. On May 27, 1932, the President added by proclamation a corridor 260 feet wide from the park boundary to the highway now designated as 160. By the Law of December 23, 1963, he was authorized to add approximately 740.52 acres to the park in the vicinity of the north entrance. Of this, 232.14 acres are still privately owned by Hindmarsh. The bill limited to $125,000 the amount that can be spent for acquiring the private land. The total acreage of federal land in the park is 51,525.68. [3]

B. Need to extend the park boundaries

As it was mentioned before in the first section of this report, by the agreement of May 10, 1911, the park added 14,520 acres of land on the south boundary; the park deleted 10,080 acres from the west boundary side. In addition, the Utes received 20,160 additional acres of public land around Sleeping Ute Mountain, bringing their total acquired land to 30,240 acres for the 14,520 they ceded the park.

During the 1930s great efforts were made again to extend the park boundaries at the expense of the Ute Indian Reservation. It was felt that the Mancos River was the logical boundary for the park on the south and east because it formed a more natural unit by segregating the section of the mesa north of the river from everything else of similar altitude and biotic character. It was virtually impossible to keep sheep-grazing and poaching out of the park with the existing arbitrary boundary skirting the Ute segment of the mesa plateau. Sheep watering tanks were found on the mesa so near the park boundary that it was impossible to tell whether they were inside or outside the park. Numerous signs of sheep grazing were evident within the park. The Ute section of Mesa Verde was valuable for domestic sheep pasture, but was unsuited to the Indian's continued utilization. The vegetation was not of the sod-forming type, so necessary to heavy utilization; it was of the bunch grass type, which disappeared within a few years and exposed the sandy soil to the erosive forces of nature.

According to the 1934 wildlife restoration plan for the park, every phase of wildlife preservation and restoration was contingent upon securing an adequate biological unit for the park. [4]

On the other hand, the Indians claimed that they needed the entire grazing area. According to D. H. Wattson, superintendent of the Consolidated Ute Agency, the Indians perhaps would be willing to consent to transfer the area in question to the park "provided lands of equal value for grazing were received by the Indians in lieu thereof." Since no lieu lands were available, Wattson saw no immediate way of changing the Indians' minds about the matter. [5]

The need to extend the south and east boundaries of the park brought to light the feasibility of extending the west boundary to cover the entire Mesa Verde plateau. This area was rich in cliff dwellings and archeological wealth and contained a few good springs of material benefit to wildlife. At one time the northern part of this area belonged to the park, but by the Act of Congress of June 1913, it was ceded to the Ute Indians as partial payment for the land added to the south boundary. [6]

During the various attempts to obtain new lands from the Indians, they presented certain grievances that made negotiations more difficult. They claimed that the park had for a number of years employed Navajo Indians on labor projects to the exclusion of Utes. These Navajo Indians were constantly encroaching upon the Ute lands with their sheep and horses; they established regular hunting camps on the Ute reservation in the fall and winter for the accumulation of venison and buckskin.

Late in 1934 the Ute council met with park officials to consider a grievance resulting from the 1913 exchange of public domain for Ute lands containing valuable ruins. Although the Utes received 30,240 acres in the exchange, they contended that the agreement gave them the whole of Ute Mountain, including certain springs. When they began to build a fence to shutout the Navajos, they found out that the most northerly third of the mountain with its much-needed springs was outside the territory they thought they had received in 1913. [7]

The park officials, in turn, had a grievance against the Indians who apparently exercised little if any control over their livestock. As things now stand, wrote Superintendent McLaughlin in 1941,

we should either give a few of the Indians grazing permits or go into an extensive drift fence construction program. We can not expect the cattle to know when they are in the park and apparently the Indians cannot or will not comprehend what the boundary means. Numerous times during the last few years rangers have either driven the livestock from the park or hunted up the Indians and requested that herds be removed. This procedure seems to get us nowhere, for it is only a matter of time until we go through the same routine with the same Indian or Indians.

Under these circumstances, said the superintendent, it was impossible to bring about a more harmonious relationship between the Ute Indians and the park. [8]

The need for extending the eastern boundaries of the park to include Mancos Canyon was emphasized by a report prepared in 1939 by Park Naturalist Watson.

On September 9 he made an inspection of Mancos Canyon to determine the condition of the ruins in that area. This canyon is located directly south of the park and forms the southern edge of the mesa itself. The canyon contained a great many exceptionally fine pueblo ruins. In the past, some of these ruins had been pot-hunted. Lately the Ute Indian Service had built a road up Mancos Canyon and in 1939 it was being made into a highspeed highway. It was feared that with this added ease of access pot-hunting would be increased.

Watson reported that the condition of the ruins indicated evidence of considerable desecration. In a number of cases the road had been cut directly across ruins and trash heaps, sometimes to a depth of several feet. In no case was this necessary as the canyon bottom was wide and flat. Construction of the road around these ruins would have entailed no more labor than cutting across them. Several trash mounds had been pot-hunted, evidently by experienced diggers, as they dug directly into graves. Only unbroken artifacts had been taken away; human boa and broken artifacts were thrown away. But the principal damage to the ruins had been done in the course of the road building activities. It was expected that with the improvement of the road more damage would be done and pot hunters would be lured into the canyon.

This road through the canyon had been planned since 1934, hence it could have been averted. The purpose of the road was to open that region and make it accessible to the Utes for grazing purposes. [9]

In April-June 1942, Erick K. Reed, regional archeologist, performed salvage excavations at five ruins damaged by the road construction in lower Mancos Canyon. Twenty-four other open sites in the same section of the canyon were surveyed. Cliff dwellings and other sites in side-canyons or mesas were not included. The excavations were carried out on assignment by the National Park Service under an inter-bureau agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the protection and salvage of archeological remains along Indian Service road locations. [10]

By the act of June 28, 1938 (52 Stat. 1209), Congress provided that all lands and rights at any time belonging to the Utes should be considered as taken under eminent domain, and that the court of claims had jurisdiction to award compensation to any bands of Utes whose lands or rights might have been taken without just compensation.

In connection with the above act, Archeologist Nusbaum wrote in 1940:

I suspect that the rights of the Wiminuche Band of Southern Ute Indians, under the Act of June 28, 1938, will be presented before the Court of Claims in due course with respect to the southerly addition to Mesa Verde National Park of 10,080 [sic 14,520] acres, more or less, of Wiminuche Band lands, under the exchange agreement of May 10, 1911 ....

Within the past few years, the Office of Indian Affairs ascertained that the lands selected by the Wiminuche Band under the exchange agreement were deeded lands of the Wiminuche Band that had been temporarily withdrawn for some purpose or other, which in effect, constituted the contribution of 10,080 acres, more or less, of their deeded lands to Mesa Verde National Park for the privilege of reclaiming 20,160 acres, more or less, of their own deeded lands.

From time to time through a protracted period, the Utes have been informally protesting the exchange since the spring water supply, probably as a result of drought conditions, allegedly diminished and then largely disappeared. [11]

Thus through an error of either the Indian Service or the General Land Office, the National Park Service inherited a legacy of Indian mistrust in negotiations. They considered the agreement of 1911 an act of robbery.

Nusbaum was absolutely correct. In 1947 the Ute Indians took their claims to court for payment from the United States government for five million acres of land in southeastern Colorado and eastern Utah. In the largest claims, four suits for the confederated band of Ute Indians in Colorado asked compensation for three million acres, including the 14,520 acres added to the park by the agreement of 1911, and as approved by Congress in 1913. [12]

In spite of the Indians' claim against the U. S. government, the Utes and the park officials had periodic discussions about the possibilities of the park extending its boundaries. Informal negotiations in 1955 centered around an exchange of land. The areas considered were the southern portions of Chapin, Moccasin, Long, and Wetherill Mesas which would be added to the park in exchange for an equivalent acreage in the northeast corner of the park. This would be a distinct advantage to the park as this area was very valuable from an archeological standpoint. It would also serve as an expansion area to meet the demands of ever-increasing visitors. Approximately 10,000 acres were involved. [13]

In 1957 the informal negotiations with the Wiminuche Band for a land exchange to add the rich archeological area south of Chapin Mesa were indefinitely postponed. Explorations conducted late in 1956 indicated the possible presence of oil and gas beneath the area under consideration. The Indians were not interested in further talk of land trade at this time. [14]

C. Management agreement

For the past several years boundary discussions with the Indians have dealt with the Chapin Mesa road at the south end of the park and the Wetherill Mesa road on the west side. Portions of both roads traverse the Ute Mountain Reservation lands. Since the park has not been able to obtain road rights-of-way, the existing right or authorization to use these roads may be revoked by the Mountain Tribe at any time.

However, all the solutions of problems relating to the Ute Reservation lands are definitely tied into an understanding that Director Hartzog desires to reach with the Mountain Tribe. This understanding, covered in his meeting with Indian representatives on June 23, 1966, in Washington, included an intensive master plan study, not only for Mesa Verde, but including the Ute lands directly south of the park. The study would involve any road development along with appropriate tourist facilities, together with the stabilization and preservation of nationally significant ruins on Indian lands. In the Washington meeting it was agreed by the Park Service and the Ute Mountain Tribe

that extremely valuable historic and prehistoric sites exist within the study area. It is the intent of the parties that these should be preserved and interpreted for all people, now and in the future, in a way that will not only protect the nationally significant values of these remains but also contribute in a creative way to the economic benefit of the Ute Mountain Tribe. Accordingly, it is the intention of the parties, if agreement is reached on a plan of management and development, that the parties shall proceed to conclude a cooperative agreement for the mutual interpretation and management of the nationally significant resources within the study area and Verde National Park. [1515]

Although the Indians are interested in the possible development of lands that have archeological value and potential economic or tourist interest, the Tribal Council has voted down Hartzog's proposal several times mainly because of tribal misunderstandings. Superintendent Guillet and his staff still have high hopes that the Utes will some day accept the management agreement suggested by the director. [16]

It has been known for a long time that the Ute lands adjacent to the park contain prehistoric ruins that are of great scientific value. In 1968 a University of Colorado archeological team under contract to the Bureau of Land Management surveyed 967 sites south of Dove Creek and west of Cortéz. Sites charted varied from simple campsites to large pueblos and from water control structures to areas with drawings and carvings of stone. They were dated from about 600 A. D. to 1300 A. D.

Although protected by the Antiquities Act, many of the larger sites had been badly damaged. According to the BLM the inventory would be used in a program to protect the scientifically and historically valuable sites during construction of pipelines, ditches, roads, or other facilities and during mineral explorations. [17]

Chief Park Archeologist Gilbert R. Wenger stated on September 17, 1969, that the Ute Indian ruins needed immediate protection and stabilization.

Since stabilization techniques have never been applied to the ruins, many are in imminent danger of collapse from natural erosion or from visits from people. I am sure that members of the Tribe are aware that sonic booms, caused by high flying military aircraft, are causing some weakened ruins to collapse each year. Each year the stabilization needs are delayed, the less potential remains for development. I would strongly recommend that the Tribe take immediate steps to protect the ruins and to train personnel in stabilization techniques in order to save these important ruins for mankind and future economic interpretive use by the Tribe. [18]

These ruins, besides being of great scientific and cultural value, stated Superintendent Guillet, are valuable for the economic development of Ute resources.

Tourism is perhaps the greatest single factor in the economy of the Four Corners Region and is growing by leaps and bounds. Because of the impact of travel and the need to maintain the quality interpretive programs at Mesa Verde, as well as prevent damage to our park resources, we may have to limit visitation to Mesa Verde National Park. The development of facilities in Mancos Canyon or on Ute lands could be of significant value to the tribe and every effort should be exerted to preserve and protect the ruins as well as the environment in which they are located from spoliation until such time as they might be developed for visitation. [19]

In the above statement, therefore, lies the importance of the management agreement proposed by Director Hartzog on June 23, 1966. [20]

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Last Updated: 21-Aug-2004