When Monumentizing Goes Wrong?: The Case of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

This is related to yesterday’s post..Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks is considered to be a co-managed federal unit between the Cochiti Pueblo and the BLM. It’s been closed for three years.

Here’s a story from KRQE News 13.  The story starts out with how difficult it was to find anything out about the closure and when it might be reopened:

The National Monument was closed to the public in the 2020 pandemic shutdown and it remains closed today. Why? KRQE News 13 went digging for answers.

For months, emails and phone calls requesting interviews with the state’s Tourism Department, the Bureau of Land Management, the Secretary of the Interior’s Office, Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez, and Senator Martin Heinrich were answered with replies such as, “We will not be providing a comment or participating in this story at this time.”

Cochiti Pueblo leaders also declined to comment. The BLM updated the statement on its website on April 28, during the weeks of KRQE’s requests for information. Finally, the BLM agreed to chat via Zoom.

“BLM has been meeting regularly with the Pueblo,” said Jamie Garcia, an outdoor recreation planner with the BLM. “We have been in discussions about what reopening looks like.”

This isn’t very transparent.  Conceivably it could have been possible to give that answer sooner. One wonders if the co-management aspect may have made it more difficult to arrive at one answer that could be communicated.

On to the Monumentization aspect:

A ‘Double-Edged’ Sword

Garcia said they’re addressing long-standing issues including over-visitation, staffing needs, and resource protection, alongside Pueblo de Cochiti. “We’ve had such high recreation use and we want to make sure that we are taking a step back and really looking at that big picture item there, and seeing how we can move forward in a more sustainable and responsible way,” Garcia told KRQE News 13.

The Cochiti Pueblo remains closed citing Covid-19 restrictions, blocking road access to the national monument which sits on BLM land. As part of the presidential proclamation, the site is managed by the BLM in “close cooperation and partnership” with the Pueblo.

“I suspect that the designation of the National Monument was a double-edged sword,” said Dr. Smith. “On one hand, it provides resources and legal protections for preservation. But once someone sees a national monument on a map, it’s close to Interstate 25, it’s close to the Albuquerque-Rio Rancho-Santa Fe metropolitan areas — then that just becomes a magnet to draw more people,” Smith explained.


There’s a calculus here.. do more resources show up in enough quantities to deal with the enhanced visitation from Monumentizing? What, I wonder, was the Monument protected from?

Data published in a government-issued 2020 science plan shows visitation levels each year since the monument designation. In 2000, Tent Rocks recorded 14,674 visitors.

In 2001, that jumped to 25,000 annual visitors with the presidential proclamation. And since then, visitation has soared to more than 100,000 people a year before the covid shutdown.

(Tent Rocks Visitations by Fiscal Year )

“But even before the pandemic, I recall seeing activity discussions between the BLM and Cochiti trying to think about how to handle the large crowds, that it was having a detrimental impact on the landscape that they were joint stewards to preserve,” explained Smith.

During Spring Break 2018, KRQE News 13 reported on the massive line of cars waiting to enter Tent Rocks National Monument. Visitors were waiting 90 minutes just to park their vehicles.

“In the past few weeks, they’ve been over-capacity,” said Danita Burns during that Spring Break surge in 2018. “People from Australia, people that are coming in from Japan. It’s quite the destination now,” she said.

Monuments can attract tourists from outside the area.. this may be good for some in local communities, but lead to problems of overcrowding and reduction of the experience for locals and wildlife.

According to the pre-2020 data report, “Current visitation is nearly three times the original planned capacity,” which was designed to hold about 50,000 visitors annually. That’s been a concern for those working at the site.

Dr. Gary Smith with UNM students at Tent Rocks in 1992.

Timed ticketing, fee increases

So, will visits to the monument move to timed ticketing? Garcia says an online reservation system along with a fee increase has been proposed.

“We have not implemented anything yet, but it is something we would like to do, make sure that we can keep up with growing costs of supplies and demand,” Garcia told KRQE News 13.

Meanwhile, locals are still seeing advertisements for Tent Rocks, and still waiting for the monument to reopen. “Oh, I’ll look forward to going back again, for sure,” said Smith.

Dr. Smith said his colleagues and friends have been messaging him, asking for updates about the monument. “Do you think Tent Rocks will open this spring? How long can they keep it closed? You know, so it’s – everyone wants to know,” Smith said.

The Bureau of Land Management says it will update plans for Tent Rocks on its website, but they have yet to provide a timeline on when the national monument will reopen. Part of that depends on when the pueblo decides to open its gates to the public once again.

It seems to me that Monumentizing, in some cases,  is like many politically symbolic activities.  Someone announces something that sounds good and makes a splash… then leave the same old folks with the same pots of dollars and competing priorities to actually carry it out.

11 thoughts on “When Monumentizing Goes Wrong?: The Case of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument”

  1. So the real question here is, do the Cochiti Pueblo people still have access to the monument when it is closed to the general public? I’m assuming yes, in which case it’s pretty obvious what really happened here. The tribe seized on Covid as an excuse to essentially privatize the monument and secure exclusive access to it indefinitely. Little wonder no one is in hurry to reopen it. The tribe already got exactly what they wanted.

    That’s the big fear with so-called co-management. That in reality it will mean monuments are managed for the sole benefit of the tribes and the general public is locked out. That tribal co-management is simply a dog whistle for racially segregated access to public lands. In this case that’s looking pretty well founded.

  2. Our neighbors to the west, the Cochiti and Zia Pueblos, the Santo Domingo and San Felipe reservations, are also being hit hard by the Trump Virus where tribal authorities have been restricting travel for non-members. New Mexico is home to nineteen Indigenous nations.

    The evidence of human history on the La Bajada Mesa has been dated to at least 8000 years before the present where volcanic rock provided the tools needed to harvest the abundant prey that migrated up and down the Rio Grande.

    Fast forward to the 1300s and after consuming nearly every living thing atop Chapin and Wetherill Mesas in southwest Colorado, the Mesa Verdean ancients sojourned east over the continental divide into the Chama and Rio Grande valleys then settled the Caja del Rio Plateau and Santa Fe. The Santa Fe River canyon was the easiest route to traverse the 600 foot La Bajada escarpment but frequent flooding often made the gap impassible for the ox and horse-drawn wagons used by Spanish invaders along the Royal Road or El Camino Real.

    In the 1800s engineers from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway diverted its main line from the craggy promontory building it alongside the Rio Galisteo instead.

    In the Twentieth Century, dynamite, Cochiti Pueblo workers and convicts carved what would become US 85 and Route 66 replete with 23 hairpin turns then I-25 was blasted through the basalt east of La Bajada Village.

    Today, nearby Cochiti Reservoir at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Santa Fe River is a radioactive sewer impounding millions of cubic yards of contaminated silt from decades of bomb making at Los Alamos and the effluent from thousands of upstream septic systems.

    Indigenous Americans and reservations have some of the highest vaccination rates in the country yet rural white, conservative christians would rather get sick and die. Nevertheless, adjusted for age and population Donald Trump killed many more American Indians and Alaska Natives per capita than he did whites.

    Now, another report, this time from the University of New Mexico, adds evidence of his crimes committed in Indian Country.

    This work provides insights into the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on American Indian/Alaska Native patients and highlights the need for interventions and resources to address health disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic. The Navajo Nation, which extends into Utah, Arizona, and NM, surpassed New York as the most COVID-19-affected US region per capita early in the pandemic (May 2020) (22). Within the same period, data from the National Indian Health Board showed that AI/AN individuals accounted for 43% of COVID-19 cases in NM (23). [Disproportionate impact of COVID-19 severity and mortality on hospitalized American Indian/Alaska Native patients]

    • These lands belong to all the American people. If the democratically elected representatives of the people want to transfer land to a particular ethnic group for their exclusive use, that is one thing. But using these underhanded methods of a bogus closure of lands that are supposed to be public and then exempting one group from that is wrong. If “repatriation” is such a noble policy as you seem to believe, then it should have no problem being done openly and above board, right?

      • Remanding public lands to a tribal entity can be done by executive order just like President Jefferson did to complete the Louisiana Purchase but Congress did sign off on the purchase of Alaska from Russia.

        • Not sure that’s actually true, but for the sake of argument let’s say it is. In that case that’s what should have been done here. Let Biden be upfront about it and sign an executive order giving away a prized national monument to a single tribe that intends to lock the rest of the American public out of it forever, and suffer the electoral consequences for that action.

          Don’t hide behind Covid and pretend that’s not what’s happening here. Don’t use tribal “co-management” of national monuments as a way to covertly give away public lands to exclusively benefit a tiny ethnic minority without ever admitting doing it. Again, if “repatriation” of land to the tribes is such a noble thing, then our elected leaders should own that decision.

          And that’s assuming anyone can even figure out the “rightful” owners of the land in the first place, given that all tribal land was first stolen from other tribes in a succession of conquests going back to the first humans to cross into North America. Good luck figuring out who those people were 12,000+ years ago in the unknown depths of pre-history.

  3. “Goes wrong” is in the eye of the beholder. Someone could look at the visitor numbers and public interest and think, wow, this something people really wanted – maybe we should make it a national park, since the Park Service has got more experience (and funding?) to deal with high-demand recreation sites.

    As to the reasons behind the closure, I don’t think there is a conspiracy to keep it closed, but I can imagine some difficulty in agreeing on reopening. The monument proclamation acknowledges its history of “visitors,” and the BLM must manage it under its existing authorities. It is apparently under a temporary closure order, and at some point a challenge to the length and purpose of the closure could be valid.


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