Public access

The current circumstances of Yucca House National Monument are a tangle of ironies. Despite the fact that Yucca House is a huge archaeological site – 600 rooms, 100 kivas, a great kiva – it is sparsely visited because it is hard to find and involves hurdles travelers ordinarily do not find on a public road.

Between Cortez and Towaoc, west of Highway 160, Yucca House is a little-known treasure. Because it is sparsely visited, it is a well-preserved and extremely valuable archaeological resource.

But that sparse visitation may have emboldened a neighboring landowner to ask that Montezuma County abandon the only passable road to the Yucca House entrance. The road is used for only two purposes: Accessing the Box Bar Ranch and reaching Yucca House. It seems illogical that one user could trump the other to the extent that access could be cut off. As long as it is a public road, all users have equal rights.

Unfortunately, the situation is more complicated than that. Yucca House visitors must cross Box Bar property to reach the monument gate. And national monuments are not universally popular in Montezuma County.

Visitors absolutely should not be harming crops or interfering with agricultural operations on private land. The U.S. National Park Service and the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office have a responsibility to see that they do not, although the isolation of Yucca House makes discharging that duty difficult.

It is also easy to understand why the problems were not reported: The chances of catching the culprits well after the fact are low indeed – especially since there cannot be all that many of them. According to the Park Service, visitation at Yucca House hovers around a thousand a year. At most, Yucca House traffic is probably responsible for 500 or 600 vehicles on that road each year. Some are Park Service employees; a sizeable minority come with rangers on one of the Park Service’s summer tours, and almost all of the rest are law-abiding.

The Park Service must do what it can to mitigate existing damage and prevent future problems, perhaps with sterner warnings to potential visitors about the rights of private property owners, better signage, better fencing to corral visitors’ vehicles in an area where they are not interfering with Box Bar operations or damaging private property, more frequent visits by rangers or even video cameras.

But other than the complaint that visitors are blocking the road (which presumably is what the landowner wants to do on a more permanent basis by locking a gate), this really is not a road problem.

Hay – sustainably harvested three or four times a year by driving on it with heavy farm equipment – is not an easy crop to damage accidentally. If visitors are parking as far to the side as they can get because the only other option is private land, they are doing the best they can in a situation that is not ideal for them either.

The greatest irony may be a road-closure request to county commissioners who have fought long and hard against closing any roads on the San Juan National Forest. In those instances, access was still available on other roads. Not so at Yucca House, which also is on public land.

The long-term solution probably is to develop different access to the monument, but until then, the commissioners cannot justify abandoning a public road that leads to public land. Let’s not start with the nuclear option. There are better ways to solve this problem.

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