On Flying Rivers and Ghost Forests: A Visit to Mesa Verde

So I spent last weekend at Mesa Verde National Park—a bit west of Durango, Colorado, in the famous Four Corners region of the American Southwest—grokking with the spirits of our Native American ancestors, hiking through ancestral puebloan cliff dwellings, and spending too much at the gift shops (which can be forgiven, seeing it was my daughter’s ninth birthday). It’s a haunting (and haunted) landscape, a mystical place, and if you stay at the Far View Lodge (that looks like it was built in the Seventies, and judging by its wear and tear, the carpet is original), you have a fabulous view of Ute Mountain in Colorado, Shiprock in New Mexico, and distant canyons and peaks and Arizona and Utah. I’ve been there several times before, lastly in 2002, not long after the big fire that scorched the park in the summer of 2000.
On this visit I noticed a distressing trend: the vast areas where the junipers, pinyon pines, and spruce burned in 2000 are devoid of new, young trees. What you see in the burn areas are miles and miles of ghost forests. Nothing but grassland (dotted with yucca, Spanish dagger, and other cacti) seems to be regrowing. The NY Times has had some recent pieces about how forest fires can now burn so hot they effectively incinerate all the seeds, and interfere or prohibit regrowth after the fire. There’s a good piece today in that vein, Jim Robbin’s “Deforestation and Drought,” here. It’s worth it just for the poetry of his description of “flying rivers” over the Amazon. Unfortunately, at Mesa Verde we have “ghost forests.”

Now I’m fascinated by forest fires (and a wicked fire burns at the heart of my new novel), and often hear how fires are nothing new, part of the ecosystem, yadda yadda yadda. That’s all true. But it’s also true that the West is drying noticeably. These aren’t your father’s forest fires. And yes, it’s not all doom and gloom. For instance, go to Yellowstone: there it’s obvious where the forests are regrowing after the tremendous fires of 1988, with entire forests covered with trees over twenty years old. But Yellowstone is a wetter area of the Upper Rockies than the dry Southwest. From the looks of it, if another fire or two hits Mesa Verde, it will have to be renamed Mesa Marron (Brown Mesa). I hope not. We don’t need another one of those weeping Indian littering PSA spots to buzzcrush our day.

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