Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico is speckled with adobe ruins and remnants from the Sante Fe Trail and a Civil War battle in the park’s open grasslands and pinyon-juniper forests. Researchers from Colorado State University are working with the National Park Service to study the complex intertwining of people and land in the park that boasts many features that reflect the region’s rich cultural and natural history.
This unprecedented effort will use environmental history methodology to support the preservation of park resources that contain inseparable historical and ecological elements. Mark Fiege, associate professor of history and director of CSU’s Public Lands History Center heads up the project along with CSU researchers Maren Bzdek and Cori Knudten.
The team is involved in a two-part project for Pecos National Historic Park. The first stage was the creation of an environmental history of the park, which was completed in June 2010. Now, the researchers are working with National Park Service staff to use the environmental history along with other assessments to create a comprehensive Resource Stewardship Strategy for Pecos.
Pecos is a fascinating and challenging site for park managers because it contains significant natural resources, such as a stretch of the Pecos River, as well as wide-ranging historic sites including pueblo ruins, an important Civil War battlefield, original Santa Fe Trail buildings and trail ruts, and a twentieth-century cattle ranch. At each of the park’s three discontiguous units, park staff balances the need to protect ecological health while preserving important chapters in the area’s human history.
The Resource Stewardship Strategy created by Fiege and his team, in cooperation with NPS staff at the park and regional offices, will help the park integrate the management of its complex array of resources and minimize the artificial division between the traditional conception of what parks consider “natural,” versus “cultural” or human-created. Because the methodology of environmental history emphasizes opportunities to expose the inherent connections between natural and human influences in every environment, Fiege’s team provides important insights that will affect future park management.
“This project showcases the growing role of academics historians and natural scientists in shaping management plans and decisions in national parks,” said Fiege. “People from many different cultures including the original Pecos Pueblo people, Spanish missionaries and settlers, American settlers, industrialists, owners of tourist sites and ranchers have met at Pecos over the centuries, all with their own perceptions on the environment and land use. Interactions between different peoples have resulted in conflict and compromise—all of which have affected the Pecos environment.”
The environmental history provided a chronological narrative of change over time for the park. Researchers looked at how groups of people over the course of history have manipulated the Pecos environment for different purposes – everything from economic profit and religious reasons to recreation and leisure activities. The comprehensive history serves as a framework for park management decisions and visitor interpretation activities.
“Park managers need to be able to justify their decisions as to how they manage their parks,” said Knudten. “The Resource Stewardship Strategy we are working on will situate the resources of the park into their historical context and consider the park’s purpose, the interpretive potential of resources, and the health of resources in order to give managers the information to make informed decisions.”
“To the best of our knowledge, this is an unusual and rare opportunity for historians to participate in creating a planning document,” Bzdek said.
The CSU research team expects to complete the Resource Stewardship Strategy for Pecos National Park by May 2011. This project is made possible by the Rocky Mountain-Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit.
About CSU’s Public Lands History Center
The Public Lands History Center fosters collaborative, democratic production of historical knowledge about America’s protected landscapes through engagement with the institutions responsible for their stewardship. For more information, please visit www.publiclands.colostate.edu.