Visit With Respect

By Victoria Atkins

Soon after starting at the Anasazi Heritage Center in southwestern Colorado in 1987, I was giving an informal curation tour to a friend with whom I’d worked in the past.  My friend worked out of the Canon City District on the Front Range in Colorado, and he was appropriately impressed by the thousands of boxes of curated artifacts from public lands in southwest Colorado.  He said to me, “Well, too bad we don’t have any significant objects and sites like this around the Royal Gorge.”  And I said, “Of course you do!  There are the high-altitude habitation sites outside of Leadville, that incredible chert quarry near Buena Vista, those wickiup structures near Cotopaxi, and that huge lithic manufacturing area in the Wet Mountain Valley.”  So what if they aren’t standing stone walls with buried pit structures and pottery!  Ancient and historic places all over our country’s public lands hold the stories of past human lives, whether they are a designated special place or something quietly protected through the National Historic Preservation Act.

Photograph of an ancient stone structure overlooking a landscape.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.  (BLM)
Protecting these places and stories is part of all of our jobs in the BLM.  While working on the resource management plan (RMP) for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in 2002, I asked myself, “How, exactly, do we protect special places while sharing them with the public?”  I had the good fortune to answer this question through that time-honored, Bureauwide tradition of getting in the truck, going to the field with coworkers, and learning from the resources. 

Two esteemed archaeologists, Laura Kochanski and LouAnn Jacobson (who served as the first manager of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument), and I drove to an 800-year-old canyon rim village, climbed down the cliff, and found shade in the cool dark depths of the alcove.  It was easy to be quiet and imagine what the Old Ones might have told us about our responsibilities today.  We started compiling a list of simple statements—things like:  don’t promote or use photos of sites that aren’t ready for visitors; make sure you have a legal right-of-way and that the route is on the list for regular maintenance; completely document the site and write a cultural management plan first; invite tribal consultants to be part of the team and learn about the stories of the landscape; make sure there is a designated site steward; don’t start something you can’t finish; treat public visitation just like any other action under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  We also asked, “Is the place too fragile to share—will it be loved to death?”  We formalized the list; it evolved through several rounds of editing and survived to be included in the final plan as a critical part of understanding the recipe for sharing sites with the public.

That was almost 10 years ago.  We are now implementing the RMP and moving forward, but what gives me the most hope are the increasing roles of volunteers, partnering organizations, and tribal consultants.  Site stewardship programs are becoming more and more common throughout public lands.  Trail information specialists, regular participants in National Public Lands Day, wilderness study monitors, scientists, researchers, ranchers, and recreationists all love the landscape, too.  There are lots of us now working together to protect the places and the stories. 

Just as my grandmother taught me when I was only 7 about how to visit a family cemetery, it is critical for each of us to learn and share how to visit with respect.  Good and bad, think about what it could be like in another 10 years!

Victoria Atkins has worked for BLM since 1979 as an archaeologist, environmental coordinator, and interpretation/education specialist from Oregon to Colorado.  She was honored with the BLM Gold Award in 2008 for her work on the film “Visit With Respect.”