MONTEZUMA COUNTY - The people who care for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument provide maps and wishes for luck.
They are at a museum that serves as the monument's headquarters, where it seems more people have been coming since April, when President Donald Trump issued an executive order that placed the monument on a list with 26 others to be reviewed for possible downsizing or delisting.
Here, some 3 million pieces of pottery, pendants and tools are kept - objects that the region's earliest people left in this desert thousands of years ago. The story of the Ancestral Puebloans is told in these exhibits, reached 11 miles from the little town of Cortez, off a road that weaves through dried grassland, past reservoirs and ramshackle homes with yards of junk piles and wagon wheels.
But this isn't where you find the monument's grandest draw - those old civilization structures that people flock to see at nearby Mesa Verde National Park. No, those orange stone walls and their remarkable dwellings are well beyond the monument's base, in locations even more distant and obscure.
"You got to work to get to these," says Marietta Eaton, the Canyons of the Ancients manager who takes a pen to a map, marking pueblo sites across the monument's 176,000 acres. "This is gonna be your experience. You're discovering this place for yourself."
Some of the 31,000 adventurous tourists who checked in with the museum last year did just that. The bumpy backcountry roads are labeled by letters and numbers and led to remote areas of piñon, juniper and sage. And here, on a hillside where there are no other people, emerges the four walls of a dwelling. Through the shrubs nearby are stones forming a ring - the great kiva where a community gathered. Far elsewhere on the edge of a cliff is a crumbling tower, still with its lookout window to the valley and the mesas and the distant Sleeping Ute Mountain that native peoples have long considered sacred. Again, no one is here, just the soaring hawks and scurrying lizards.
For the traveler, the places are bizarre, awe-inspiring. For Dan Simplicio, the places are home.
He is among the tribespeople residing locally who know the Canyons of the Ancients ruins to not be ruins at all - they are alive with the spirits of ancestors. These are places to take his 15-year-old-son, places to provide perspective to the boy in a modern, confusing world.
Now, even with both of Colorado's U.S. senators assuring that the monument will remain untouched in the wake of Trump's order, Simplicio is imagining the places gone.
"It would be a major loss for us," he says. "It's an opportunity that would be going to someone else; it's not something that is actually focused on the native interests at all. We have so much history of that happening. And here's another one, another opportunity we may lose to some other entity or group that wants to think about this place differently and profit from it."
While some state legislators were pleased by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's statement last month that Canyons of the Ancients was not a priority in his agency's review, local conservationists sound less optimistic.
"With the unpredictability of this administration, I don't think anything's safe. I'm still very concerned," says Deborah Gangloff, president of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, the research and educational nonprofit in Cortez that advocated for the monument's designation in 2000 under then-President Bill Clinton. "There are people who would like to see it opened up to energy exploration and development, and if they feel the door's slightly ajar, they'll step their foot in."
With the public comment period of the review ending Monday, Zinke has already recommended shrinking Utah's Bears Ears National Monument, encompassing land important to the same tribes who hold Canyons of the Ancients sacred. Utah legislators earlier this year asked for Bears Ears' 2016 designation to be rescinded, sparking reoccurring controversy surrounding private interests on public lands.
Trump's order - which put only one Colorado monument in the crosshairs with others around the country protected since 1996 by the Antiquities Act - states that it "could open federally protected lands to mining, logging and drilling." The Bureau of Land Management's plan with Canyons of the Ancients is common to those at other monuments with recent designations: it grants historical uses, such as cattle grazing and energy exploration, but restricts them to certain areas while also capping future activity.
More than 80 percent of the land covered by Canyons of the Ancients is leased for oil and gas development - a majority of which is for Kinder Morgan's wells over the McElmo Dome. The monument overlies nearly all of the formation, a boon for the company that is North America's largest transporter of carbon dioxide. The McElmo Dome is one of the world's largest known source fields for the gas, which is used in oil drilling, providing 1.1 billion cubic feet of it per day to Kinder Morgan. For 33 years the formation has been tapped by the company, which declined comment.
Conservationists cite drilling as the greatest threat to the monument, especially if market demand increases. Mark Pearson, executive director of the monument's advocate San Juan Citizens Alliance, says the National Landscape Conservation System gave the Bureau of Land Management power to prioritize protection among the agency's leasing mandates. Those conservation guidelines were established the same year Canyons of the Ancients was designated.
"But I think the fear under this administration is that it'll go radically out of balance again," Pearson says, "and make extraction the first and foremost dominant use out of any other on public lands."
Environmental arguments tend to get "emotional," says Christi Zeller, executive director of the energy council in neighboring La Plata County. Having represented the area's gas and oil industry since 2001, she says conservationists can overstate drilling's impact by commonly referencing fracking.
"Drilling techniques don't include fracking" at Canyons of the Ancients, Zeller says. "It just isn't part of that geology, and that's part of the problem: Putting all of geology in one picture is inaccurate."
Lost in arguments, she says, is the economic role of the industry - a big player in this Four Corners region. A 2014 study by the University of Colorado found that gas and oil accounted for nearly 40,000 jobs statewide, contributing roughly $4.1 billion to household income that year. Montezuma County last year received more payments for federal mineral leases and severance taxes than any other county in the state, according to the Department of Local Affairs; $3.2 million went to local government while the school district collected $156,957.
With Kinder Morgan's significant presence as an employer and taxpayer in the area, Canyons of the Ancients advocates recognize the importance of the monument operating in harmony with the company. A disconnected dynamic of that kind has raised local angst in rural communities - like those around Bears Ears - where people believe protected land limits the economy.
Montezuma County has expressed otherwise, with its tourism office touting the benefits of Canyons of the Ancients. Cortez's City Council last month sent a letter to Zinke, asking for the monument to be unchanged.
Eaton, the monument's manager the past six years, says Kinder Morgan has recently supported surveys of the landscape over thousands of acres, scouting spots where drilling would not touch cultural resources - a challenge, she notes, in what is the nation's largest concentration of archaeological sites. More than 6,000 have been documented.
The sites have not been impacted by the shared use, Eaton proudly states. The idea of conservation "in the middle of all these other activities," she says, was a big draw to the job after 25 years in other federal land management roles.
"I felt if we could do that here, you could pretty much do it at any environment," she says.
And also: "It was kind of a personal thing."
'It can't come back'
As a child Eaton was inspired to pursue her career in archaeology as she examined small, grainy photos of her cowboy ancestors. Those photos have been blown up to cover walls of a new exhibit at the monument's museum.
A room is dedicated to the Wetherills, the family of Pennsylvania Quakers who homesteaded around here. Eaton is named for her great grandmother, the wife of Richard Wetherill, who is credited for coming up with the term "Cliff Palace" - the continent's largest cliff dwelling and postcard image of Mesa Verde National Park.
A Ute tribal member brought Wetherill's attention to the place. And he and his brothers went on to uncover much more across the land, raising national awareness of the Ancestral Puebloans with every wall and artifact they dug up.
Those excavations continue; earlier this year the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center uncovered a great kiva.
And questions continue about the ancient people: How did they thrive in drought conditions? Why did their social structures change? Why did they leave?
Eaton is still asking those questions. She's the classic archaeologist who believes answers to the future come from the past. And she also believes those answers can easily be pushed out of reach.
She toes the administrative line when asked about the monument under review. But she tells a story.
"I remember being a Girl Scout and once finding an arrowhead," she says. "I took it home, and I lost it. I took it home and lost it, and I think about that today and still feel bad about it."
She still gets "the goosebump feeling" of discovery when visiting the monument. "The thrill of touching the same stone that people thousands of years ago touched," she says. "I think that affects almost everybody."
It especially affects Simplicio. To him, losing the monument would be observing another instance of the country overlooking his culture.
He saw his people in New Mexico's Zuni Pueblo, torn apart in the 1970s while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development moved them into single-family houses, stripping them of their traditional communal dwellings. The Zuni were introduced to the idea of private property that needed to be bought, and thus they were forced to understand the need for cash - alcoholism and suicide followed their journey into capitalism.
Three years ago Simplicio moved to Cortez to work for the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, to teach people about Canyons of the Ancients.
"I worry we don't make time to understand each other," he says, "to know what our culture is about, what the culture means, because we're trying too much to keep up with the changes."
He appreciates mornings like these in the countryside, where kids on an archaeology tour are gathered around a hole in the ground. They spent the past week learning about the land, how rich it is, and how, as their teacher put it, "if this was looted or ruined, it can't come back. It'll be lost forever."
Now the kids are out searching. They're analyzing the dirt, sifting through it to find something oddly shaped or strangely smooth. They'll know when they find that something, they've been told: They'll know by the feeling.
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332