House on Fire crowds and other bits and pieces

House on Fire, an Ancestral Puebloan structure in southeastern Utah, is not particularly significant from an archaeological standpoint. The architecture, while robust enough to still be intact a millennium later, does not stand out, nor do archaeologists believe that the site had significance as a trading, political, or ceremonial center in its time.

But House on Fire is easy to access from a state highway and, as the name suggests, is visually stunning (or eminently instagrammable, to be a bit crass), due to sandstone patterns of the alcove in which it sits. And each spectacular social media posts draws more people wanting to capture the very same image, albeit with themselves in it in their most fetching poses, so they can post it and draw more people and more media coverage, including stories everywhere from visitutah.com to Atlas Obscura, which then draw more people and, well, you get the picture. This guy even took some sort of infinite-loop #housonfireruins selfie:

A post shared by @terr86

House on Fire, which sits inside the boundaries of the shrunken Bears Ears National Monument, has thus become one of the most popular places to visit in the region, drawing at least 6,000 people a year, according to Bureau of Land Management guesstimates. Those visitors park willy nilly along the side of the graveled Texas Flat road, sometimes straying onto fragile soils; some create “social” trails or poop and leave toilet paper near the trail; a few collect artifacts and climb on the walls; and they leave trash and food scraps near the site.

Clearly something must be done to mitigate the impacts. Now, the BLM’s Monticello Field Office has devised a plan. Limiting visitor numbers via a permitting system just isn’t feasible, given the location. So, instead, the BLM is hoping to manage and educate the burgeoning crowds by building a parking lot, putting in some toilets, constructing a short connector trail to discourage social-trail use, closing and reclaiming the social trails, and adding more educational signage.

Originally the agency proposed building a loop trail that connected House on Fire with the developed Mule Canyon site. To their credit, they abandoned this plan in response to concerns that such a trail would make House on Fire and other nearby sites even more accessible.

The plan may not be perfect: added infrastructure likely will draw even more people to the site. But what choice does the BLM have? Keeping the status quo isn’t an option. Keeping places like this secret may have been an effective management tool in the past, but that ship sailed long ago. Simply ignoring the crowds, and the related impacts, aren’t going to make them go away. Nor would it make sense to follow the proposed solution for overcrowded national parks by sending visitors to lesser known sites. That would just spread out the damage—and the human feces—to other places while doing little to help the House on Fire situation.

In any event, we’re sure to see more of these sorts of solutions to the growing crowds on public lands. You can read the BLM plan here. Next week the Land Desk will run a “thread” inviting paid subscribers to weigh in on solutions to crowded national parks and public lands, so get ready for the discussion!

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In related news: Of all the busy national parks, Yellowstone may be the busiest. It has seen record visitation numbers every month this year except February, with more than 1 million people visiting in July. As of Sept. 1, the YTD visitation stood at 3.6 million. In case you missed it, be sure to read the Land Desk’s gone-viral post on the issue of overcrowded national parks (which also managed to rile Sen. King’s press guy).

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The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced the deletion of the Gilman townsite from the Eagle Mine Superfund Site. This just means that the remains of the old company town would no longer be part of the sprawling mine site, the remainder of which will remain under Superfund status. It’s not big news, but when I first saw the bulletin I thought it should offer reassurance to my friends in Silverton, who have the vast Bonita Peak Superfund site in their backyard, that the status and all that goes along with it may one day go away. Then I realized that Gilman has been a Superfund site since 1986. Silverton may need to learn to be patient.

That aside, the news also interested me because I recently drove past Gilman and the Eagle Mine for the first time in probably 30 years and I was captivated by the whole thing: The shells of houses perched on the edge of the Eagle River gorge, the extensive workings of the mine, indelibly altered slopes, and countless other examples of visible impacts to the landscape—a sign of myriad invisible impacts—despite 35 years of Superfund status.

The area, just a mile or so up the Eagle River from Minturn (which is just down I-70 from Vail), was first mined in the 1870s. The New Jersey Zinc Company consolidated these small mines into the Eagle Mine in the early 1900s and ran it until 1966, when the company merged with Gulf + Western. It sold the mine in 1979 and the operation went belly-up in 1983. During that time hundreds of thousands of tons of tailings were dumped in the river or piled up next to the stream. Roasting piles built up and leached heavy metals. Mine adits drained millions of gallons of acidic water laden with arsenic and other heavy metals into the Eagle River, harming fish habitat for miles downstream.

Huge amounts of money, engineering, and work have gone into the cleanup since 1986: tailings and roasting piles have been removed and disposed of and capped; settling ponds built; streams diverted; water treatment plants, which will run indefinitely, were constructed. Regardless, three decades after cleanup began, levels of zinc, often used as an indicator metal in such cases, remained elevated in the Eagle River. In 2017 the EPA developed another list of remedial actions, which are still underway. It’s yet another reminder of that old saying: Mining is hard; cleaning up the mess left by mining is a heck of a lot harder.

And what will become of Gilman now that it’s no longer a Superfund site? Some possibilities: a. luxury homes with a historic-mine view; b. affordable housing for Vail Valley workers; c. a mountain adventure resort with amusement park style rides

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Lord knows we could use more of that affordable housing just about everywhere. Entrata, a property management software provider, recently took a look at Utah rental rate changes between 2019 and 2021 and this is what they found. Egad.

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Oil prices continue to climb in spite of COVID-19 concerns. And when oil prices go up, so do the drilling rigs—whether there’s a leasing pause or not. New Mexico’s Permian Basin is seeing the most activity, but Utah and Wyoming slowly bounce back from zero activity last year.

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Drought-parched California has been the epicenter of wildfires this year, and the massive Dixie Fire and destructive Caldor Fire continue to rage. Now a newer blaze, the KNP Complex Fire, is threatening the giant, ancient sequoias in Sequoia National Park. Firefighters are trying to hold the line against the flames and have even wrapped the trees in fire-resistant, aluminum blankets to protect them. It’s kind of like saving Nature from herself, but more like trying to save Nature from a human-altered version of herself, I suppose.

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Greta Moran has a strong story in Civil Eats this month entitled, “Could Climate Change Put an End to Arizona’s Alfalfa Heyday?” Climate change has helped shrink the Colorado River system and water cuts will hit Arizona farmers who rely on Central Arizona Project water first. Alfalfa needs a lot of water, so those farmers will be forced to fallow their fields or switch to less water-intensive crops. In other words, they’ll have to live within the land’s limits, for once.

But not all of them. Something that often gets lost in this conversation is that a good number of Arizona alfalfa farmers get their water not from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project, but from underground. Take, for example, the 10,000-acre Fondomonte Farms—a subsidiary of Saudi dairy giant Almari—which grows alfalfa in the desert of La Paz County, Arizona, to feed its cows in Saudi Arabia. Even though the CAP canal runs within sight of their fields, the pumps all of its irrigation water from wells. And groundwater pumping in that part of Arizona is utterly unregulated. Fondomonte, and other huge farms like it, likely will continue to grow alfalfa until they suck the wells dry.

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WHAT WE’RE READING: “This is what Indigenous Economies Look Like,” by Jessica Stago, of the Grand Canyon Trust and Change Labs. Here’s an outtake:

A truly just and equitable transition represents an opportunity for Indigenous communities to create economies that not only work for them by providing basic necessities that every human should have access to, but also repair the damage that’s been done in the past and align our economic activity with our cultural values and traditions. 

It’s worth a read.

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