With the anticipated opening of Lake Nighthorse, local agencies are gearing up for the daunting task of protecting the many Native American cultural sites at risk to looting and vandalism.
“If you talk to the tribes, they view that area as a sacred place,” said Kristin Bowen, an archaeologist for the Bureau of Reclamation. “And they are concerned about people being disrespectful out there and turning it into a big party spot.”
Lake Nighthorse was built by the Bureau of Reclamation in 2003 as part of the Animas-La Plata Project, which pumps water from the Animas River to fill a 123,541-acre-foot reservoir for tribes and water rights holders.
Recreation on the lake, for various reasons, has remained off-limits to the public. This spring, however, the city of Durango plans an official opening date of April 1, which is expected to bring thousands of visitors to the area, just southwest of town.
While the Bureau of Reclamation has a plan in place that seeks to limit the impact on the vast cultural resources around the lake, Native American tribes with ties to the people who once populated the basin worry those measures will come up short.
“That’s a very significant cultural area,” said Peter Ortega, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Groundbreaking discoveriesBefore waters of the Animas River started to flood 1,500 acres that would become Lake Nighthorse, an extensive archaeological survey and excavation of the area was conducted in an area known as Ridges Basin.
The findings, said James Potter, who was then the principal investigator for the firm that led the excavations, were groundbreaking for understanding the ways of the ancestral Puebloans.
The surveys found hundreds of archaeological sites, some dating back to 6500 B.C. But the most revealing sites provided unprecedented insight into the village dynamics of the Pueblo I people, who inhabited the region around 700 to 900 A.D.
During that time period, about 300 people lived in a small network of villages, building pit structures, plazas and dwellings. It was considered “one of the most significant social revolutions in human history” as the traditionally nomadic people turned to settled civilizations, according to a Bureau of Reclamation report.
“It’s a really interesting case study on how people were figuring out how to live in villages in the early Pueblo period,” Potter said.
Perhaps the most shocking finding was at a site called Sacred Ridge, where more than 15,000 bone fragments from only 35 people or so showed evidence of extreme violence and mutilation, likely tied to ethnic conflict, Potter said.
Not long after the event, the ancestral Puebloan people vanished from the region, heading south to settle in areas of New Mexico and Arizona. It wasn’t until around the year 1500 that people started to inhabit this part of the Four Corners again.
Balancing recreation, protectionFrom 2002 to 2005, SWCA Environmental Consultants excavated nearly 70 sites, including more than 100 human burial grounds, from areas that would either be inundated by the lake or located along the shoreline.
The fear going forward is that cultural resources around the lake, as well as any other artifacts that may be exposed, such as pottery sherds and remnants of stone tools, could be subject to looting, vandalism and unintended damage.
There’s even the risk that wave erosion could unearth human remains on Sacred Ridge, which is expected to be underwater, but could be exposed during low-water years.
A Bureau of Reclamation report says there are more than 130 known sites around the lake, including pit houses, camps and other habitation sites the agency deems sensitive to recreation impacts.
“It’s an ongoing problem,” Potter said. “How do you let people enjoy public lands yet balance that with protecting non-renewable cultural resources sensitive to tribes?”
Ed Warner, manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the No. 1 preventive measure for lessening impacts to sites is that visitors cannot go more than 25 feet beyond the reservoir’s high-water mark without trespassing.
“But there’s no doubt we’re not naive enough to think everyone is going to honor that,” Warner said.
Patrolling the reservoirAs part of the opening of Lake Nighthorse, the city of Durango agreed to manage recreation at the reservoir and take the lead on providing law enforcement.
But technically, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has jurisdiction beyond the 25-foot boundary above the high-water mark.
Sheriff Sean Smith said the department has received a few trespassing calls a year at the reservoir. But once the public is allowed in, patrolling areas of the reservoir, especially the off-limits part above the high water mark, becomes tricky, because deputies don’t have easy access to those lands without taking a boat across the lake.
Repercussions for looting and vandalism of Native American sites are often prosecuted as felonies with associated fines and jail time, depending on the severity of the damage.
“There’s a lot of land out there, and it’s going to be tough to find people doing this,” Smith said. “We’re going to need help from the public to notify us.”
While neither agency is trained to deal with culturally sensitive sites, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Warner said by the time the reservoir is open to the public, everyone who works at the lake will have received proper training.
If someone is caught looting or vandalizing a site, Warner said authorities will be trained about how to secure the area while federal agencies, which are responsible for any possible prosecutions, can be notified.
Warner said signs will be installed to educate visitors about the importance of Native American artifacts. Signs will also warn visitors of the possible consequences of looting, vandalizing and trespassing.
“This will not be an area where people want to go out and mess around with the resources,” said Ernie Rheaume, archaeologist with Bureau of Reclamation.
Rheaume said the agency has no plans at this point to put up fencing around sites, which can inadvertently damage and also draw attention to ruins. The agency will, however, monitor the ruins on a yearly basis to track any changes.
Potter said most important artifacts, as well as a great amount of burials, were taken out during excavations in the early 2000s. But as is the case with archaeology, it’s difficult to know what else lies underground.
The same concerns that exist around theft and damage at Lake Nighthorse existed when McPhee and Navajo reservoirs opened.
“It’s a losing battle,” he said. “I would just implore people to not take artifacts or move them into piles.”
‘History needs to be respected’About 25 tribes were consulted during the Bureau of Reclamation’s process of drafting a plan to protect Native American resources at Lake Nighthorse, which all have ties to the ancestral Puebloans.
The Durango Herald contacted multiple Native American tribes for this story, which either declined to comment or did not return phone calls. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe also declined to comment for this story.
Ortega said the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe supports the water distribution project and provided input about how to protect the land’s history, but the tribe is less supportive of recreational use and its impact on cultural relics.
“There were some very important things that happened in that valley over the last thousand years, and the tribe feels that history needs to be respected. But flooding the area and putting boats over it is not the respect the tribe would like to see,” he said. “You wouldn’t build a Disneyland over the World Trade Center memorial site.
“But (tribes) often have to concede to what the government wants to do,” he said. “Of course, the tribe would like a program that would prohibit anyone going on those lands unless they have a guide. But we have said our piece and need to move forward.”