It seems fitting that the first national park created primarily to protect cultural resources turned out to be a model for success among the many to follow.
To date, more than half of the national parks established by Congress are specifically intended to protect cultural resources, and Mesa Verde, with more than 4,000 archaeological sites, is still leading the pack.
Mesa Verde is the exception, not the norm, Gail Dethloff, senior director of the National Parks Conservation Associations Center for Park Research, said Saturday.
Dethloff was one of several panelists in a field hearing for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committees National Parks Subcommittee, of which Sen. Mark Udall is chairman, on Saturday.
During the hearing, Udall and the panelists read testimonials before engaging in a question-and-answer session.
In her testimonial, Dethloff reflected the committees assertion that the programs and policies at Mesa Verde can serve as an example for struggling parks nationwide.
Over the last decade, the Center for Park Research evaluated natural and cultural resources at 80 national parks, Dethloff said. Of those, they assessed the condition of park heritage properties and museum and archival collections in 77 parks, she said.
In their assessment, the center found that 91 percent of the parks cultural resources were in poor condition, she said.
Cultural resources generally do not fare well overall, she said.
A major problem for parks is their inability to properly catalogue and identify their own resources, she said.
The first step in cultural resources management is to identify, evaluate and document the properties and collections in the park services care, she said in her statement. This baseline documentation of resources is key to next steps.
Dethloff added that the staff at Mesa Verde has done a good job of properly cataloguing the parks 600 cliff drawings.
In addition to Dethloff and Udall, other panelists included Laura Joss, Intermountain Region associate director for cultural resources for the National Park Service; Bambi Kraus, president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers; Jim Dyer, a former board member of the Mesa Verde Foundation; and Gary Hayes, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Throughout the hearing, Udall stressed the ability of national parks to create revenue and jobs for local economies.
In difficult economic times, people sometimes question whether we can afford to protect our special places, and our history and culture. So I think its important to highlight the strong benefits to the local economy that a park like Mesa Verde brings, Udall said in his statement to the subcommittee.
The committee seemed to agree that investments in road improvements, artifact preservation and construction projects ultimately would help make parks more attractive and accessible for visitors, and in doing so help feed their local economies.
In Montezuma County alone, Mesa Verde has helped generate about $70 million each year in tourism-related revenue, which helps support about 1,000 local jobs, Udall said.
Joss pointed out damaging factors that face the parks, including weather-based-erosion, wildfires, looting and vandalism, all of which support the need for funding to protect and preserve parks and their resources.
A challenge for all in this economy is funding, Hayes said. Careful goal-oriented budgets regarding staffing and training are key to the successful protection of all park cultural resources, he said.
Another critical aspect of maintaining park heritage, Hayes said, is the involvement of affiliated tribes with the NPS, as well as other federal and state agencies.
They are of extreme importance, which goes far beyond their commercial value or the artistic pleasure gained when they are displayed, he said.
They are, to the affiliated tribes, a part of history of native people, a remembrance of the strength of their survival, their innovation and life practices, he said.
Hayes recommended that all NPS employees be trained in cultural awareness.
Kraus also focused on the need for Native American involvement in the parks and questioned current NPS regulations on the ability of Native Americans to use and gather traditional materials.
Native Americans should not have to ask for special permission for something that was always their right, Kraus said.
She emphasized Native American involvement in creating park policies and stressed the importance of tribal consultation.
Dyer presented an example of how associated tribes have been involved with new construction at Mesa Verde.
In designing a new research center at the park, the Mesa Verde Foundation included input from 24 tribes that share a heritage at Mesa Verde, Dyer said.
Udall added to the panels concern that native cultures be preserved and included in policymaking at national parks.
There not only is a need for economic diversity in society but also for cultural diversity, which is crucial to our species, he said.
Theres no one way of being human, he said.