The wide-ranging benefits and impacts of archaeology in Colorado in recent decades are illustrated by the numerous case studies and examples in the first sections of this report. The future holds the promise of even more discoveries, opportunities, and challenges. This section moves beyond strictly economic benefits and looks ahead at the ways Colorado’s people and places are expected to change over the next 50 years and beyond.
As Colorado’s population continues to grow, the trends documented in this report, like a thriving heritage tourism economy, will continue—but there also will be new implications for the field of archaeology. While the nationwide growth rate is expected to slow between 2030 to 2050, Colorado’s rate of growth will likely increase, led by seniors and millennials. Both groups have the potential to impact and benefit the field of archaeology. Seniors play an important role as avocational archaeologists, while millennials offer an opportunity to broaden awareness of and involvement in the field by an active, energetic, and well-educated younger generation.
The content on this page explores issues relating to a changing Colorado and potential impacts for the field of archaeology, with featured projects illustrating these new trends.
Changing Climate. As Colorado confronts increasing threats from wildfires, floods, and other natural and man-made hazards, the state will be forced to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate. Archaeology provides a unique look into how climate change occurred in the past and how past societies sought to adapt to climate change. The field may offer lessons to guide Colorado’s adaption and mitigation efforts.
Effects of Urban Sprawl. As the population increases, so do development pressures. Urban centers expand and new urban areas emerge to accommodate population growth. Sprawl has the potential to threaten both natural landscapes and the archaeological sites scattered throughout them.
Impacts of Oil and Gas Development. The oil and gas industry plays a central role in the Colorado economy but presents a unique risk to archaeological sites, which can be damaged or destroyed by insensitive forms of extractive development.
Benefits of Land Conservation. Increasing population and development pressures could indirectly benefit archaeology, in that burgeoning efforts to set aside land for scenery, recreation, or wildlife will help preserve archaeological sites for future study.
From declining snowpack to the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, Colorado has begun to feel the effects of climate change. For instance, between 2000 and 2014, tree ring-analysis showed that water flows in the Colorado River were 19 percent below the 1906-1999 average. It is certain that Colorado will face many environmental challenges as it adapts to climate change. Archaeology provides a unique perspective into how societies today can learn from past efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.
Wildfires in Colorado
Increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires is one of the biggest threats that Colorado faces from climate change. As precipitation decreases and temperature increases, Colorado’s arid landscape becomes increasingly dryer and more susceptible to wildfires. In 2018, over 1,300 wildfires in the state burned some 475,000 acres. This was a steep increase from the historical average. For instance, from 1980-1989 there were about 140 wildfires larger than 1,000 acres, compared to about 250 from 2000-2012. This trend is expected to continue; Colorado is considered one of the top three states with the highest wildfire risk.
Archaeologists are still researching some of the effects of fire on archaeological sites. It is still unknown exactly how damaging fire is to stone artifacts or how fire damage affects the ability to date artifacts. It is certain, however, that the increasing prevalence of wildfires due to climate change will be an ongoing hazard for archaeological sites. In the future, it would be beneficial for archaeologists to collect data on the proximity of extreme weather events like large wildfires and flooding to archaeological sites to help develop appropriate protection and mitigation strategies (see Mesa Verde Wildfires, below).
Historical Lessons of Climate Adaptation
Archaeology provides insights into how past societies were affected by and adapted to climate change. Of course, today’s climate change is caused by different conditions than those seen historically. Today, human activities such as fossil fuel extraction and industrialized agricultural practices are primary drivers of climate change. Even so, there are lessons Colorado can learn from how landscapes were transformed and how past societies adapted and mitigated the effects of a changing climate.
Beginning in the tenth century, the Earth’s surface temperature warmed worldwide. This global warming had disparate effects on landscapes and societies across the planet. In western Europe, longer summers allowed for a longer growing season. Societies in those areas welcomed warming temperatures as it brought more bountiful harvests, which contributed to population growth. However, many societies in Central America failed to adapt to climate change and collapsed entirely as drought, fire, and famine swept through the land. These elaborate societies migrated, leaving behind archaeological sites like the pueblos of Chaco Canyon and the Mayan pyramids of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
By studying historic landscapes and societies, archaeologists can learn how modern society may successfully adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change in Colorado (see Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Learning from the Past: Prehistoric Climate Migrants, above).
With a growing population comes the risk that archaeological sites become covered by new apartment buildings or shopping malls, and a sprawling road network, leaving historical treasures undetected and unlikely to be recovered.
Such buried resources may be found in the future only by luck. In Durango, archaeologists uncovered an extensive system of Native American ruins when surveying a realignment of the US Highway 550. The site contains artifacts from the year 800 and is likely to reveal a host of revelations about the people who occupied the land. Nonetheless, exploration of the site will not be long-lived. Following several months of surveying, excavation, and returning artifacts and human remains to tribes, the realigned Highway 550 will cover the site and likely destroy some of the well-preserved artifacts. Stories like this are not unusual. Archaeological sites are constantly subject to development pressures, which only increase with a growing population.
The Magic Mountain Site in Golden provides an example of how vision and collaboration resulted in the successful coexistence of an archaeological site with development. The Magic Mountain archaeological site, dating from the Archaic through the Early Ceramic periods, is one of Colorado’s richest, with over 80,000 artifacts including 20,000 bone fragments and 83 ceramic sherds. Those discoveries were nearly thwarted by creeping developments in Denver and Golden (see Magic Mountain, below).
OIL AND GAS DEVELOPMENT
Archaeological Sites and Oil in Weld County, CO
For decades, resource extraction has been an important pillar of Colorado’s economy. Mining and mineral extraction, including oil and natural gas, accounts for about 3.2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, contributing over $17 billion to the state economy. Crude oil production quadrupled starting in 2010, producing about 116 million barrels in 2016. Similarly, Colorado has become the fifth-largest natural gas-producing state, with 11 of the nation’s 100 biggest natural gas fields. The mining and mineral extraction industry is expected to continue to play a central role in the Colorado economy in the future.
The prolific and dispersed nature of oil and gas production means that archaeological sites potentially anywhere in the state could be disturbed by oil and gas activities. But the impacts are most concentrated in the northeast; nearly 96 percent of oil production and 86 percent of natural gas production in the state occurs in five counties, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). Over 80 percent of Colorado’s crude oil is produced in the Denver-Julesburg Basin in the northeastern part of the state.
Weld County sits directly on top of the Denver-Julesburg Basin and is home to the largest concentration of oil and gas development in the state. The county is also home to thousands of archaeological sites including the Jurgens Site, the Wilbur Thomas Shelter, the Keota Stone Circles Archaeological District, and the Dent Site. Some, like the Dent Site, which provided evidence that Paleo-Indians and mammoth co-existed, and the Keota Stone Circles, which provided evidence of human landscape use as early as 3,000 years ago, have proved to be rich archaeological sites. These sites demonstrate that much is left to be detected, while those still buried sites may be at risk from oil and gas development.
In late 2019, the BLM announced that it would allow oil and gas companies to make lease bids on land about 5 to 20 miles north of the Hovenweep National Monument. Located in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, the Monument is home to a group of prehistoric villages and sacred tribal land with connections to several indigenous tribes throughout the US southwest. The tribes fear that drilling near the sites will cause damage to the prehistoric structures and pollute the air. The future of the archaeologically significant land at Hovenweep may be at risk to the flurry of oil and gas development in the region.
By its nature, oil and gas development in Colorado has and will continue to disturb the land, and this will inevitably include many archaeological sites. Though oil and gas development is not likely to slow in the state, archaeologists and the oil and gas industry could work together to protect significant archaeological sites – like they have in the past. In particular, Weld County could be prioritized where there is both a high concentration of archaeological sites and oil and gas development.
BENEFITS OF LAND CONSERVATION
“The past belongs to us all, but the archaeological and historical sites and artifacts that link us to the past are fragile and finite. They contain the collective knowledge of generations of people who lived before us. Diligent stewardship is required to make sure that our children and grandchildren will have an opportunity to study and admire these historical and archaeological wonders. The preservation of landscapes and archaeological sites not only enriches minds, but it also can enrich communities through heritage and archaeological tourism, which is a major contributor to Colorado’s economy. We need to protect these precious pieces of the past so we can pass them on to future generations.”
Jim Walker, Southwest Regional Director,
The Archaeological Conservancy
Identification of new archaeological sites and continued research at known sites depend in large part on the preservation of the sites and the land on which they are situated. Urban sprawl, land development, and oil and gas extraction pose significant threats to unknown sites and artifacts, which may be destroyed by construction activities, or damaged inadvertently by increased numbers of people visiting and using the area.
New technologies like drones, LiDAR, and satellite imagery allow archaeologists to examine large areas and identify archaeological sites without damaging them. But these techniques too require undisturbed landscapes.
Conservation recognizes and preserves numerous characteristics of the landscape – archaeology, history, cultural connections, biology, and geology. These values are what make places important to specific cultural groups and attractive to visitors. Land conservation preserves the possibility of discovery and research – connecting the past to the present and offering a glimpse of what the future might bring (see The Archaeological Conservancy, below).