USFS archaeologists take job to new heights |

USFS archaeologists take job to new heights

Leah Silvieus
Special to the Post Independent

In search of history, Rodney Denardo has traversed the Civil War battlefields of the East Coast and the cornfields of the Midwest. He has explored the remotest desert areas of the Southwest and now he is scaling Colorado’s Fourteeners.

“I go to the farthest reaches of the forest and see the prettiest places,” Denardo said.

The White River National Forest heritage resources office sends seasonal archaeologists, like Denardo, to survey an area for evidence of historic or prehistoric human habitation before it is impacted by a project such as a road or trail.

“Surveying is basically finding what’s there,” Denardo said, “walking, looking and walking some more.”

A site is any place that shows evidence of human activity, according to Alice Gustafson, heritage resources staff archaeologist.

Sites are prehistoric if they were inhabited before the advent of written language, and historic if inhabited after written language.

“We make sure that nothing is out there before there’s any kind of disturbance,” Denardo said.

For example, when the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative constructs a new trail or repairs an old one on forest land, the heritage resources office works in cooperation with them to survey the proposed project area.

A mountain top is not a stable environment, Denardo said. “When a lot of people are hiking near each other, they can cause slides.”

This past summer, Denardo and Tim Rehusch, also a heritage resources seasonal employee, climbed Pyramid Peak near Aspen.

“We usually climb a couple early in the field season before the monsoons hit,” Denardo said.

During surveys, the archaeologists look for anything out of place. The subtle coloration of dirt could hint that the site was once someone’s home.

“Most prehistoric sites on the forest are lithic scatters,” Gustafson said. “These contain the remains of aboriginal stone tool making.”

Such a site may include flakes, which are fragments of rock that have been chipped by a tool, or projectile points, also known as arrowheads.

Sometimes spiritual sites point toward peaks. A stack of rocks on top of a mountain could be where a medicine man sat to look over the valley, Denardo said.

“The Utes didn’t have equipment to climb these mountains like we do, but they still did it,” Denardo said.

Denardo said archaeologists look for rock structures which may have marked trails, or rock overhangings that might have been used for shelter.

The Forest Service notifies the Ute tribes of any sites that may be significant to them.

“We acknowledge the Native Americans who still have ties to the land,” Gustafson said. “We treat their concerns and interests with respect and consideration.”

On rare occasions, the archaeologists find dinosaur fossils, Denardo said. The office calls paleontologists to deal with those sites because heritage resources are more people-based, according to Gustafson.

“Finding these sites is not common because of the harsh weather,” Denardo said. “Stuff doesn’t tend to hang around.”

Surveying on the Fourteeners is so physically grueling that the archaeologists don’t do it often, Denardo said.

“With a job like ours, we really have to suck it up because we don’t know how long we’re going to be out there,” Denardo said. “We can’t breathe and we’re walking uphill. You had better be in good shape. You don’t need any fancy diets with this job.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.