Four men stood at the opening of a formidable construction site.
“It’s going to be beautiful, a trellis structure, with wood stitching across the top,” said Bill Nelligan, deputy superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park.
He pointed upward.
About 15 feet off the ground, sparks splashed off a steel beam as two men welded it to a vast, interlocking metal lattice.
The sight was not beautiful, but it was impressive. For nine months, Russell Planning & Engineering, the Durango-based construction firm that won the contract to build Mesa Verde’s new $12.1 million visitor center, has been achieving the improbable: a government construction project that is on time and under budget.
On the other hand, Cliff Spencer – the park’s new superintendent – is attempting to do what many see as impossible: his job.
Expectations are high, numerous and often confused.
Some want Spencer to bring about a sharp increase in the number of people visiting the park.
Others, like Andrew Gulliford, professor of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College, consider the park’s declining popularity a foregone conclusion of modern American travel habits.
“For parks like Mesa Verde, the heyday was the time of two-week vacations and crowding all the kids into the back of a station wagon,” Gulliford said. “People don’t do that anymore. They take shorter holidays. That pattern has shifted.”
Spencer’s concrete responsibilities are many. As superintendent of the park – which he describes as his “dream job” – Spencer ultimately is responsible for the construction of the visitor center. He meets weekly with the construction team and the architect.
As Spencer admired the sprawling construction site, wearing a bright yellow hard hat, he expressed disbelief.
“Superintendents were longing for this type of facility in the 1920s. It’s going to transform the way people experience Mesa Verde,” he said.
Anything would be an improvement on the park’s current facilities. Now, visitors drive miles into the park before reaching the visitor center and often have to wait in line.
More unacceptable is the state of the park’s research center. Affectionately known as the “tin barn,” the building is vulnerable to fire and lacks security – though it houses the park’s priceless collection of 3 million artifacts.
Park officials anticipate that the new visitor and research center will open in October 2012. Though building the center has proved to be an arduous process – entailing hundreds of construction workers, tons of steel and cement, a decades-long wait and more than $12 million – Spencer says the real difficulty lies ahead, in moving 3 million artifacts into the new archive space.
“Everything has to be planned ahead of time, down to what drawer – what shelf – a single artifact is going to be moved to,” he said.
Spencer said that moving the collection will cost $90,000 – a bargain rate of 3 cents per precious artifact.
Tara Travis, the museum curator, said that in the past, the museum has hired basic movers.
“The idea is to pack the objects so perfectly that they could fall off the back of a moving van and be fine,” she said.
To this end, museum management has prepared detailed packing recommendations, according to object type. For example, it predicts that ceramics will require 2,641 hours of packing; plant materials, 1,271 hours; and 22 hours to pack ancient specimens of dung and feces.
Travis said the museum will rely heavily on staff, volunteers and students from FLC to help with the packing.
“The other issue is space. Everything has to be packed over there,” said Travis, pointing to six white tables.
Meanwhile, Spencer said his staff was dealing with four small lightning fires that had broken out in the park and six more on Sleeping Ute Mountain.
In fact, on being asked what kept him up at night, Spencer shivered and without hesitation said, “The prospect of fire. We’re getting closer to monsoon season. Everything will be easier then.”
Part of Spencer’s anxiety is that only 10 percent of the park gets cellphone coverage.
“A lot of employees have laptops and decking stations, so if they saw fire, they could get the word out that way,” he said. “But we revise the evacuation plan every year. It’s almost like Homeland Security’s color coding – we have four steps of risk.”
Spencer recalled that in 2000, fires forced former curator Carolyn Landes to secretly pack, load and transport the entire Mesa Verde collection “to the old Walmart in Cortez.”
Gulliford recognizes the challenges of the superintendent’s job and acknowledges that in the past, mistakes were made.
“For instance, displaying human remains – but that happened a long time ago – they were removed in the early 1970s,” he said.
Gulliford said that Spencer is doing an excellent job.
“Superintendents have different styles, different ideas about historical preservation. Right now, morale in the park is high,” Gulliford said. “The rangers love Cliff they want to work with him, they are very interested in him. And they are the face of the park. No one is going to come to Mesa Verde and meet the superintendent. They are going to meet the rangers.”
Spencer conceded that he has found some aspects of his new job daunting.
“The hardest part of the past nine months has been learning on the job. Learning about the park’s history, its research, its programs. I have had to make a lot of hard decisions really quickly,” he said.
But Spencer said he loves the work he is doing.
“My favorite part of my day is when I get to get out of my office and explore the collection or go down to Balcony House,” he said. “It becomes clear why this place is so special.”