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Amid calls for preservation, CDOT says archaeological sites can’t be saved

U.S. Highway 550 realignment to destroy ruins south of Durango
The Colorado Department of Transportation says there was no way to avoid Native American ruins when realigning the U.S. Highway 550 interchange south of Durango.

New construction typically doesn’t bulldoze through a graveyard, so why is it OK for the Colorado Department of Transportation to destroy and pave over a large settlement of Native American ruins for the reconstruction of U.S. Highway 550?

“People think: Why not just move the alignment instead of hitting the archaeological sites?” said Dan Jepson, cultural resource manager for CDOT. “But the bottom line is, it’s not that simple because it’s a balancing act with a lot of issues.”

Native American ruins more than 1,000 years old have been unearthed just south of Durango, where CDOT is realigning a 2-mile stretch of Highway 550. The initial discovery was made years ago as part of the highway department’s early work to realign the road, but the extent of ruins wasn’t realized until this year when archaeologists began excavating and documenting the sites.

Discovery of the trove, and its future demise, has elicited mixed emotions from the public. Some have called for CDOT to stop construction and preserve the ruins, going so far as to create a petition. Others say encountering past archaeological sites is a common, albeit unfortunate, occurrence when developing in the American Southwest.

A little history and explanation might help.

Archaeologists had no way of knowing the size and scope of the Native American settlement in an area just outside of Durango known as Florida Mesa, Jepson said, because it was underground. But researchers were aware for at least the past two decades, that ruins were going to be encountered based on field observations.

In the late 1990s, CDOT started to explore the idea of moving the current Highway 550 interchange, known as Farmington Hill, which officials say is steep, dangerous and not built to withstand the population and traffic increases expected in the region.

The proposed new interchange, however, required building through mostly undeveloped, private farmland. As the project picked up momentum, more field studies were conducted to determine the impact of construction to things like the environment, historic ranches and archaeological sites.

“A number of the archaeological sites we know about now were discovered in that time period,” Jepson said.

CDOT originally planned for the highway to bisect the 554-acre Webb Ranch. But those plans didn’t take into account a gas well on the property CDOT says it became aware of in 2007, sparking years of litigation and negotiations between the two sides.

The interchange portion of the realignment with a series of roundabouts and bridges was completed in 2011, costing around $47 million. But the connection to the highway languished as these land disputes were settled.

Ultimately, a new alignment that is expected to cost more than $100 million was selected around 2017 that climbs the edge of Florida Mesa and skirts the northwestern edge of the ranch. It’s this route that rolls through the Native American ruins.

Jepson said when building a new highway, CDOT is tasked with weighing the impacts to not just archaeological sites. Wetlands, endangered species and private property, to name a few, are all taken into account. And, he said no matter what, ruins would have been impacted.

“We looked at quite a number of different alignments during those years,” he said. “And regardless of what alignment we went with, we were going to be going through archaeological sites.”

As part of federal and state law, CDOT was required to send archaeologists into the field before the highway construction and conduct excavations to find out the extent of the ruins beneath the surface. That project started in fall 2018, and that’s when researchers started to realize this was no ordinary find.

“That’s the mystery of archaeology: You don’t know what you have until you put a shovel in the ground and determine what’s there,” Jepson said.

As it turned out, seven sites were discovered in the path of the soon-to-be built highway, three of which were considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because of the significant buried cultural remains and structures found there.

As a result, Jepson said CDOT either had to completely avoid the area or conduct extensive excavations to document it.

“But with the ultimate alignment, we were not able to avoid all of the sites,” he said. “So we’ve been doing controlled excavations to obtain the data.”

Another complication was thrown into the mix when human remains were discovered on-site.

In 2012, a CDOT study said “to the best of our knowledge and belief, no human remains … are expected to be encountered in the archaeological work.”

“We had no evidence at the time,” Jepson said. “But finding remains at these residential dwelling sites is not unusual.”

Indeed, during the first excavations on Florida Mesa in fall 2018, human remains were found.

As per protocol, Jepson said work immediately stopped at the site and local authorities were called. After it was determined the remains were from the ancestral Puebloans, the state historic office was alerted, as well as the consulting tribes.

Three tribes have been associated with the Highway 550 project: the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Hopi and the Pueblo of Laguna. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe did not return requests for comment for this story.

But Jepson said the SUIT came up with a process for how to deal with remains.

Before excavation, a brief ceremony is conducted by a tribal member. The remains are then placed in a red natural cotton cloth that has ties to tribal tradition and stored in a lab. Once the project is complete, the tribes will hold a reburial ceremony close to the area.

A representative with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office said tribes would ideally prefer ruins not be disturbed at all. But knowing that’s not always possible, tribes rely on the federal and sometimes state laws that treat remains and archaeological sites with the utmost respect.

“And actually, Colorado is the best of the four states we work with,” the representative said. “It’s an unfortunate process, but they are doing all the legal processes and functions for reburial.”

Jason Chuipka, co-owner of Woods Canyon Archaeological Consultants based in Cortez, isn’t directly involved in the Highway 550 project, but he has seen his fair share of excavations in the Southwest, namely, the unearthing of ruins in Ridges Basin before the inundation by Lake Nighthorse.

Chuipka said the ruins around Durango are arguably the most important archaeological sites in the West, showing how the early ancestral Puebloans transitioned from a migratory life into one with settlements, structures and farming.

It’s a harsh reality these sites will be destroyed, Chuipka said, but he also offered some silver lining.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that archaeological sites were given any serious protection laws. Now, at least, regulations require developers to try to limit impacts to sites, conduct excavations and consult tribes for the reburial of remains.

“Although it is unfortunate when historic resources get damaged, the fact there is a degree of effort to salvage information on those sites is something we can’t take for granted either,” he said. “You can’t just bulldoze history. You have to consider adverse effects and consult with descendant communities.”

Jepson said archaeologists on Florida Mesa will have sufficient time to gather all that’s needed from the site before construction next spring. CDOT will have an archaeologist on-site during construction, just in case any human remains are found.


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