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Utes tour charred land they once called home

Tamie Meck
Staff Writer

Clifford Duncan stood at the side of a dirt road and looked out at the charred lands in the Mitchell Creek drainage. More than a month after the Coal Seam Fire chewed its way up the canyon, the smell of smoke hung heavily in the air.

Duncan, a man of few words, breathed deeply and nodded. “It’s good,” he said quietly.

An elder with the Northern Ute Tribe, Duncan was one of three Native Americans to tour the areas of their aboriginal lands that were burned in the Coal Seam, East Meadow Creek and Spring Creek fires.

The tour, held last Tuesday, also marked the first post-fire consultation with Native Americans on any of Colorado’s wildfires. Funds for the tour were available because such consultations are written into the White River National Forest’s recently released Revised Forest Plan.

“It’s important to get in after the fire and work with the tribes to protect their interests,” said Bill Kight, heritage resource manager for the White River National Forest. “We got to see everything we needed to see and fly over sites we were concerned about.”

Jim Jefferson, the cultural preservation coordinator appointed by the Southern Ute Tribe, and Betsy Chapoose, cultural rights and protection director for the Northern Utes, also attended the tour, which included a helicopter ride over the Flat Tops and South Canyon, where the fires burned.

Members of the three Ute tribes – the Northern, Southern and Ute Mountain Utes – care very much what happens to the land affected by the fires. The Ute people lived in this area prior to being pushed onto reservations by the U.S. government in the late 1800s. Their ancestors, their graves and the few traces they left behind remain here. While much of their land is now private property, the Utes are involved in use planning of public lands managed by agencies including the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

For now, the Utes are “just looking,” said Jefferson. They want to get an estimate of the damages that have occurred, then decide what to do about it. They would like to come back some time in the next year and perform a ceremony and blessing, he said.

Since much of the public lands have already burned in the past, there is little left for fire to destroy, explained Kight. The concern lies in the damage that can occur in fighting fires, implementing erosion control after a burn, and the erosion itself. Mitchell Creek is a particular area of concern with the Coal Seam Fire. Much of the land is under BLM jurisdiction.

“Right now we’re looking at the burn area as a whole comprehensively,” said BLM archaeologist Cheryl Harrison. “We’re dealing with cultural resources and how the fire impacted some of those sites.”

The BLM hasn’t completed site surveys in the Mitchell Creek area, and it’s not likely to happen any time soon due to lack of funding, said Harrison.

The Burned Area Emergency Response (BEAR) Team is an interagency effort to address emergency concerns and erosion mitigation in areas that were burned. The BLM has been involved in those efforts, and has placed netting and straw wattles on hillsides to reduce slope flows in the Mitchell Creek burn area, at a cost of approximately $310,000. The wattles “were brought up here from Arizona, so they had scorpions in them,” said Harrison, adding that the bugs aren’t likely to survive the cold winter.

“What we’re trying to do,” explained Steve Bennett, associate field manager for the BLM Glenwood Springs field office, is develop a better relationship with the tribes” and take input from the Utes regarding their interests in BLM lands. “The White River National Forest has laid the groundwork,” said Bennett.

The WRNF Heritage Resource department has spent the past 10 years working with Ute tribal members to inventory their cultural resources on WRNF lands, which encompass about 2.4 million acres.

Consultation on land use was also considered in all phases of the forest plan, including fire planning.

“We recognize it at a leadership level and that it’s important,” said Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle, who attended the tour. “We recognize that it’s our responsibility.” One goal of the forest plan is to “increase efforts to work in close coordination with tribal governments and others in the stewardship of forest lands.”

The Northern Utes have had established relations with federal and state agencies for about 15 years, said Chapoose. “As the laws are changing we’ve become more of a voice in land management.”

Cultural resources, she said, “are important and need to be considered in all phases of development.”

All known sites within the burn areas will be reviewed over time. Fire and mitigation teams have been trained to recognize cultural sites and are provided site maps prior to going into an area, said Andrea Brogan, fire archaeologist for the WRNF. One site, a lithic (stone tool) scatter, was impacted by a bulldozer putting in a fire line. The damage was immediately reported by crew members.

“It’s nice to come onto a forest where communication is so open,” said Brogan, who transferred to the WRNF a year ago.

The damage appears minimal, considering the overall damage done by the fire and the hundreds of people who have been working in the burn areas, said Kight. “The fact that only one site was damaged speaks highly for everyone trying to avoid them.”

Tuesday’s consultation is a step in the right direction regarding ongoing relations with Native Americans, said Kight. “It’s just one example of agencies trying to do the right thing.”


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