Cultural sites at risk from climate change

December 16, 2018

Millions of Americans were riveted by scenes of death and destruction that two wildfires have visited on California communities, particularly Paradise, which is all but obliterated. At least 85 of its residents were killed, with many still missing and nearly 14,000 homes destroyed. The survivors throughout California deserve our help and our prayers.

But when the shock wears off — and for many it never will — they also deserve, as we all do, an honest conversation as to why these fires are more intense and more frequent than ever. Scientists tell us that climate change is a critical contributor, which makes this an important teachable moment. If we miss it — as we have missed others — we lose a unique opportunity to engage the nation on an issue that is essential to the future of our planet.

Climate change threatens virtually every aspect of life on Earth, none more important, of course, than life itself. Many say it is the ultimate national security issue of our time, and a new federal study leaves no doubt about its economic impact. But climate change also threatens much of our history, especially the history embodied in our “cultural sites,” the ruins and remnants of the first Americans passed down through multiple generations to the Native Americans of today. These cultural sites are, sadly, increasingly threatened by human activity, both directly and indirectly; primary among the latter — by climate change.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has named 30 significant U.S. sites at risk from the “damaging effects of climate change,” which it lists as rising sea levels, hotter and more frequent wildfires, increased flooding and erosion. Perhaps no cultural site on the list demonstrates these effects better than Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.

Its 33,000 acres consist of deep canyons and high mesas, home 10,000 years ago to hunter-gatherers attracted by plentiful game and water. Around 1150 BCE, they began building permanent structures, carving cliff dwellings high in the sheer canyon walls and then multistoried pueblos on the Frijoles Canyon floor. Anthropologist Adolph Bandelier brought the unique site to national attention in the 1880s; Congress made it a national monument in 1916. During the Depression, men from the Civilian Conservation Corps built a road into Frijoles Canyon as well as some of the most stunning New Deal architecture and furniture anywhere.

In June 2011, a nearby ponderosa pine fell on a power line igniting parched vegetation; the resulting fire soon became so dense that it burned at a rate of one acre per second in an area that had seen the worst drought in millennia. One observer called it a “runaway inferno” with winds up to 40 mph. The conflagration soon became “a horrific 40,000-foot furnace of smoke and soot, spinning a 400-foot high tornado, sending lightning in its wake and embers flying nearly 25 miles. …” The fire was uncannily similar to the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise.

From our home in Santa Fe 20 miles away, my wife and I saw this extraordinary sight rising in the sky. Like others, we feared the wind could send the fire toward Los Alamos National Laboratory and its tons of insecurely stored nuclear waste; if the fire reached it, the then-radioactive wind would carry it our way. Mercifully, the wind shifted just in time; the danger was over, and after several days the Las Conchas Fire was controlled. More than 150,000 acres of woodlands had burned, including 60 percent of Bandelier’s and 17,000 acres in nearby Santa Clara Pueblo, plus smaller losses in Jemez and Cochiti pueblos.

Not long after, heavy rains produced a flash flood up to 17 feet high rushing through Frijoles Canyon toward Bandelier’s visitor center, threatening archeological sites and historic structures. Fortunately, an early warning system permitted park staff to place 14,000 sand bags around the sites and to remove bridges over the creek. Luckily, no lives were lost and damage to structures was minimal. Huge swaths of ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests had been decimated elsewhere in Bandelier, leaving virtually no vegetation to stop or absorb the rains and mudslides as they poured through.

Visiting Bandelier often, I still see burned and fallen trees everywhere. There is little hope the forests will return any time soon, especially in the burn areas. In such places, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “the loss of vegetation from wildfires and the inability of burned soil to absorb moisture can cause flash floods … especially [in] the semi-arid Southwest.” Another frequent visitor put it this way: “I first understood what the firefighters and land managers had been saying for decades: ‘This forest is not sustainable in our warming world.’ It took just one day in the burn area to understand that.”

While Bandelier may be unique with its back-to-back intense fires and flash floods, the same essential phenomenon occurs throughout the West; in northern California we saw flash floods carrying debris within days of the Camp Fire. Elsewhere, the same deadly cycle threatens important parts of America’s heritage at parks, national monuments and pueblos. Until two years ago when President Barack Obama declared Bears Ears in Utah a national monument, its 1.3 million-plus acres held thousands of prehistoric sites and artifacts, making it the most significant unprotected cultural site on public U.S. land. Many if not most of the individual sites at Bears Ears were still unidentified because the Bureau of Land Management never undertook a comprehensive survey of where such sites exist. The Trump administration’s unprecedented attempt to contract the monument by 85 percent would leave countless sites vulnerable not only to climate changes indirectly affected by human activity, but also to direct human activity such as looting, vandalism, off-road vehicles and mineral exploitation. The cultural landscape would be dangerously exposed.

As varied as most cultural sites are, most of them have this in common: They are rooted in the land and thus are sacred to the descendants of those who came before them. At least four pueblos on the Rio Grande trace their ancestry to Bandelier; even more pueblos and several tribes trace theirs to Bears Ears. And so it goes throughout the nation. Many of today’s Indians return regularly to these places for ceremonies and rituals honoring their ancestors. These sacred places give them spiritual connections not only to the Earth, but to their past, their culture and their identity. As much as any church, synagogue or cathedral in the United States, these cultural sites are part of our shared national heritage, and it’s incumbent upon us to provide them, and all of us, with a climate that allows them to survive.

Richard Moe, a part-time resident of Santa Fe, is the former president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a board member of the Conservation Lands Foundation.

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