Protecting New Mexico’s Cultural Resources

The Site Steward Program


Once a month my husband and I grab daypacks, hiking sticks, and plenty of sunscreen, and head up to the Gallina area of the Santa Fe National Forest to monitor the archaeological sites assigned to us as volunteer site stewards. We walk the sites, maps in hand, carefully noting any signs of disturbance or visitation, and file a report if changes are observed.

Mike Bremer, the forest archaeologist and Heritage Program manager of the Santa Fe National Forest, has long managed the Santa Fe National Forest Site Steward Program, and I asked him if he would share with us some of its history It was not easy to catch up with Bremer over the summer of 2013. Three wildfires—Tres Laguna, Jaroso, and Thompson Ridge—threatened the Santa Fe National Forest, and Bremer had intense and immediate concerns protecting both the natural and the cultural resources of the forest. But the firefighters worked heroically, the monsoons came, and Bremer found time to talk with us about the calmer and quieter pursuits of the volunteers who work year round to monitor New Mexico’s archaeological sites.

El Palacio: What are site steward programs? What is the purpose of and need for such programs?

Bremer: Site steward programs are generally programs that agencies use to monitor cultural resource or archaeological site conditions in the field. My impression is that most agencies use them to pick up the slack in site inspection and monitoring that agencies cannot do because of budget or other pressing priorities. Almost all of the site steward programs I’m aware of use volunteers to do the work. They involve the public in the preservation of their resource.

El Palacio: What is the history of site stewarding in the Southwest?

Bremer: That’s a big question. I can only speak to what I know, which is primarily Arizona, New Mexico, and a little bit of Colorado. If memory serves me right, site stewardship programs started in the mid to early 1980s, when state and federal budgets started taking a nosedive.

Most folks are not aware that cultural resources are a nonrenewable resource that requires management and maintenance. Without consistent feedback on site conditions, archaeologists and cultural resource managers (frequently the same thing) are left in the dark regarding whether sites are deteriorating or in need of stabilization or repair. This can be said for sites in developed situations, such as interpretive front-country sites or unexcavated, poorly known, but significant resources. Cultural resources need care and feeding if they are going to be preserved for posterity and future research. This is where site stewardship comes in. It provides eyes and ears for managers who may not be able to visit the resource as often as they like.

In the 1980s, cultural resource managers shifted their focus to compliance-oriented cultural resource management to address threats to cultural resources from land management and development activities. The nature of the business moved archaeologists to concentrate on imminent threats and reduced the focus on the larger but significant resource base.

My first experience with site stewardship was in Arizona, when this shift started to occur. Governor Bruce Babbitt and his staff in the SHPO [State Historic Preservation Office] were aware of the shift in awareness and formed a working group to develop programs to address the issue. One result from the working group was the development of the Arizona Site Stewards Program, which involved cultural resource specialists from most of the state and federal agencies in Arizona. This also resulted from a distinct rise in site vandalism, presumably associated with the lack of attention paid to cultural resources by agencies through no fault of their own. In many ways that program formed the basis for programs in other states, which had different levels of success. My understanding is that New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and possibly Nevada and California also attempted to develop site stewardship programs, with mixed success.

On the Santa Fe National Forest, Landon Smith, the forest archaeologist from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, attempted to start a stewardship program, which was marginally successful and then petered out, although the memory of that program resonated with some of the original members and was mentioned occasionally as we started the current version of the program on the Santa Fe.

El Palacio: How did the Santa Fe National Forest Site Steward Program begin? What was your role in establishing the program?

Bremer: As I said earlier, the Santa Fe program had limited success in the early 1980s and during the late 1980s and early 1990s was relatively nonexistent. In 1995 or 1996, Leonard Lucero, the forest supervisor on the Santa Fe, gave a presentation to the Sierra Club in Santa Fe, and he was specifically asked by attendees why we didn’t have a site stewardship program on the forest. Leonard pled ignorance and asked them what they meant. After having it explained to him, he came into work the next day and approached me and said something like, “Why don’t we have this program on the forest? As of today I want you to start one up.”

After the shock wore off, I gathered my wits and agreed to take on the task. I had some experience with it in New Mexico. Norm Nelson, who was then the State Land Office archaeologist, had started a site stewardship to monitor conditions on sites in the Galisteo Basin and in the Pueblito area, east of Bloomfield. I attended one of his day-long trainings and began to develop our program with the assistance of Terry Ballone and Wayne Nelson. In April of 1996 we trained twenty stewards in the same model we had learned from the State Land Office via Norm. We assigned ten sites and set stewards off on their own. It was time consuming and quite a bit of work, as well as a new type of work, and we were essentially teaching ourselves as we went along. We managed to train three more classes between 1996 and 2000 and ended up with around thirty-five dedicated stewards after teaching sixty to eighty people. Some of those people are still with the program today.

In 2000 the Cerro Grande Fire set the program back significantly, to the point that I proposed disbanding it to my boss because we could not devote the time to it we felt it deserved. Then a group of the newly trained stewards and some of the older stewards approached me with an alternative model for managing the program. They proposed organizing themselves into a group that would be responsible for training and managing the volunteers, and the forest would be responsible for oversight. By the end of 2001, the group had formed themselves into the Site Steward Council and formed a bureaucracy to deal with the program, and for that I think the forest should be forever grateful. Several of those folks, thirteen years later, have moved on to other pursuits, but frankly without their commitment the program would not exist, and because of their commitment it remains one of the brighter spots in site stewardship around the Southwest.

El Palacio: In addition to the Santa Fe National Forest program, other site steward programs exist in New Mexico. What are those programs, and how are they similar to or different from the SFNF program?

Bremer: The other programs I know about in the state are the New Mexico SiteWatch program, managed through the Historic Preservation Division with chapters throughout the state, and the Northwest New Mexico Site Steward Program, run from the San Juan County Archaeological Research Center and Library at Salmon Ruins. I think there are things all the programs share, and using dedicated volunteers is the foundation those programs are built on. I can only speak to Santa Fe’s program and am not real comfortable speaking about the differences between us and the other programs. All the programs have scheduled site visits by stewards and required reporting of those visits. I think programs differ in the levels of training, and you would have to speak to those programs’ managers to see how they compare with ours. The Santa Fe program started out with fairly detailed and vigorous classroom training, and we have pared that down significantly in the last several years. We have come to the realization that the important thing is to get the stewards out on the ground. Our organization is a little different from others in that we manage a relatively fixed piece of land, i.e., the lands of the Santa Fe National Forest, which at 1.5 million acres seems like a lot but pales in comparison when you consider that the New Mexico SiteWatch program tries to account for effects to sites over the entire state. We also try to give a relatively high level of attention to the forest stewards by having them vetted and supervised by the local crew chiefs (called area team leaders) for the six areas. In general, the stewards know they are responsible to their crew chiefs but can call me or any of the other archaeologists on the forest with questions. We also try to respond to issues they have in the field, and we may be better able to do that because we are relatively nearby. We have learned from the other programs in the state the importance of responding to steward issues and figuring out ways to acknowledge steward contributions.

El Palacio: What is your vision for the future for these and similar volunteer-based programs?

Bremer: I pretty much see the program extending beyond when I leave the forest (not in the near future, by the way). I’m not sure I could have said that in the beginning, when I felt the forest needed to take on all the responsibility. One of the good things in having the steward organization being self-governing is it’s bigger than a single person and not likely to rise or fall with that person.

I am getting somewhat jaded as my experience grows. I think there will always be a place for volunteer programs, but I hate to see agencies become reliant on them to the point that they expect them to always be around. I have not, since I’ve been doing site stewardship, seen an increase in funding for site inspection and monitoring, and I fret that may be because the volunteers do a good job, and the need never rises to the point of being an issue. I do worry that someday, especially if the economy keeps yo-yoing, volunteers may choose to do something else or not be able to afford to use their own equipment and gas to do the work. I don’t see this happening immediately, but the possibility exists, and I always remind folks that if we had the budget to do the work, we would still need volunteers to do many other things which are not being done now.

Shelley Thompson is the director of marketing and outreach for the Museum Resources Division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. Her interview with Nicolasa Chávez appeared in the winter 2012 issue of El Palacio.