Vanishing Treasures In The National Park System

Remnants of the church of San Gregorio de Abó II at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument/NPS file

From the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast and on up to Alaska, there are thousands of historic structures and archaeological sites within the National Park System. They range from homesteader cabins to prehistoric cave dwellings. Taking care of these buildings and archaeological sites is a valuable job for the National Park Service, as they speak to the country’s history and its prehistory.

Helping individual parks care for these structures and sites is the staff of the National Park Service’s Vanishing Treasures program, which was created back in 1998. The staff performs a “wide range of technical assistance services for the preservation of all types of traditionally-built Western cultural resources. Staff includes a structural engineer, a materials conservator, historical architects, and a range of preservation craftspeople who can provide assistance to parks beginning with resource condition assessment and the development of treatment recommendations.”

Ian Hough, program coordinator for the Vanishing Treasures program, recently discussed the program with Traveler Editor Kurt Repanshek for this week’s podcast. Their conversation follows.

Traveler: Can you give us an overview of the Vanishing Treasures program and why it exists?

Ian Hough: In general, we’re a program in the InterMountain Regional Office in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And we serve parks in our geographic region that happens to contain a lot of archaeological sites and historic structures. Those structures have preservation challenges on a daily basis. And the programs within the parks that are responsible for taking care of those resources often have challenges beyond their capabilities, either because of a lack of staffing or a lack of particular technical expertise. So we exist as a program to serve parks in that regard when they’re developing preservation projects and run into issues in executing those projects to preserve the resources. Then we partner with them as consultants on technical aspects, project development, scoping projects, and that kind of thing.

Traveler: Was I accurate saying there’re literally thousands of sites that you have to be involved with?

Hough: Technically speaking, that is true. Some of the parks in the Southwestern United States have some of the greatest numbers of archaeological sites in the country. And those archaeological sites often contain archaelogical remains. On top of that, you’ve got more recent history, including mining history and logging history and mineral extraction history. All of which left the legacy on the landscape, including the remains of, as you mentioned, cabins, industrial sites, and buildings, that kind of historical structure. So yes, if you add all that up, then potentially we are responsible for thousands of sites and thousands of structures.

Traveler: So how recent of a structure would qualify for your program? I’m thinking of the Kennecott Mine up in Wrangell-St. Elias [National Park]. Certainly that’s a historic site. Is that something that falls under your purview?

Hough: It does. You know, if the parks are responsible for maintaining structures and implementing preservation projects, then we can get involved. So we don’t have an age determination or a requirement that a building or structure has to be a certain age or older. If the park is responsible for managing that structure and they have a need for the Vanishing Treasures technical staff, we will lend a hand with that.

Traveler:  Do you have a huge staff?

Hough:  We wish we did have a huge staff, but no, our staff is fairly small in proportion to the region and the number of resources that we assist with. It’s myself and then three technical staff and then, on occasion, interns that join our staff for a short period of time.

Traveler: Never a shortage of work, I’m sure.

Cavate conservation at Bandelier National Monument/NPS file

Hough: Never a shortage of work. It’s almost guaranteed. But we are getting good at leveraging our relationships with our partners to expand our capacity. And I think that’s where the legacy of the Vanishing Treasures program really pays off in the national parks. In terms of finding technical experts and cooperators and contractors who do really good preservation work. We can join those partners with the parks and help them in that regard. Even if the Vanishing Treasures staff doesn’t have a crew and we can’t travel to help the parks implement the project, we have good partners to help make that happen.

Traveler: Back in the last century when I was working with The Associated Press in Wyoming, This Old House, the PBS television series, came out to a wilderness area, just to the east of Yellowstone National Park. There was an old cabin there that dated back to the early 1900s, I believe, and this eclectic artist had convinced Theodore Roosevelt that we needed somebody there to make sure that the sheep ranchers didn’t overrun Yellowstone and the surrounding forest. It was in a wilderness area, and so of course they couldn’t use any power tools, whether it was electricity or a gas engine. And it was really interesting watching them work on this old structure. Do you guys get involved with structures or sites in wilderness areas? And how do you approach those?

Hough: Yeah, absolutely. And the Vanishing Treasures program doesn’t draw a line between structures and buildings and archaeological remains that are located within wilderness vs. those that are located outside of wilderness areas. We will help and assist parks implement their projects, regardless of that designation. But when we do have wilderness designation and we’re helping with a project, we let the parks take the lead in terms of the planning that leads up to that project. If you’re familiar with this cabin outside of Yellowstone, you’re probably familiar with all of the requirements for doing this kind of work in the wilderness in terms of environmental compliance.

So we let the parks take the lead on that in terms of the types of activities that might be restricted in wilderness and how to plan the logistics of getting people and materials to the site. And it is a challenge, it absolutely is. Most recently, I worked at Wupatki National Monument, and we have many, many, many hundreds of archaeological sites with standing architectural remains in eligible wilderness. And in order to get the crews there, we have to dedicate quite a bit of time and effort just to our travel and getting that material and those people to site. And how we do that, of course, was with non-mechanized equipment. So other than the road that we could drive a short section on and drop the crew from, then we would have to carry everything by hand. So you know, we use backpacks called cache haulers that look like a normal backpack, but they’re open. And it’s got a frame and you can load up your buckets with soil and sand and all the materials that we need for preservation, water, all tools. We assemble these small kits that go into small buckets, and we carry those with the sand and the soil and the water on our backs and then hike over the desert terrain to get to some of these wilderness sites. And that lengthens the duration of the project considerably, but it certainly is doing work the correct way in light of wilderness designation.

Traveler: You didn’t use horses or mules to help carry the gear and resources?

Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument/NPS, H. Rich

Hough: Some parks do that, for sure. They have that kind of support, but Wupatki didn’t. And so we used ourselves, National Park Service staff members, as well as Youth Corps crew members. And so we would use the young, strong backs of the corps members to help us get all that equipment into the wilderness area. We’re not hiking into a wilderness where we have to cover 30 miles a day to get to our site. We’re talking shorter distances of five to 10 miles.

Traveler: Now, once upon a time, there was the Western Center for Historic Preservation, another arm of the National Park Service, and you guys merged with that. What did that bring to the Vanishing Treasures program?

Hough: Well, we were merged with them until recently. Now we’re back to operating independently, at least administratively. We still have a very, very strong partnership with the Western Center. And what it brings us now is a broader team of experts and a deeper reach into partnerships, as well as the ability for the Vanishing Treasures program to advertise training, workshops, as well as training material, and expand our network in the professional community, the conservation community. And that continues today. I think the biggest benefit is just having more people coordinating and planning and developing training material and training programs that really hit on what the parks need. You know, we don’t have an unlimited number of staff and an unlimited budget to develop these training materials ourselves. But when we partner with the Western Center, we can take advantage of their existing programs in terms of really targeting development and implementation of those training programs. That’s something that the Vanishing Treasures program alone does not have the capability to do.

Traveler: Now, when you’re talking about training, a lot of that is for the general public, I believe, right? Some years ago there was a program up at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Alaska, how to preserve log structures and whatnot and how to do some maintenance on those. And then there was also one in Grand Teton National Park where your team worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help rehabilitate the Jenny Lake Historic District. And I believe that involved some youth, teaching them some of these skills.

Hough: The training programs that we have are targeted to both National Park Service employees involved with preservation, as well as the public in terms of consulting private consultants and consulting agencies outside the National Park Service. And so these workshops typically are a blend of National Park Service uniforms as well as participants from outside the National Park Service. We tried to get creative with developing workshops and trying to get work done, you know, on top of trying to bring a structured curriculum in terms of stepping participants through a preservation project from start to finish. And I think the parks benefit from that. Just having the time to think through each of those steps in the public. And these partner organizations benefit from the skills that they learned, doing the hands-on workshops, as well as a greater understanding of how the National Park Service approaches preservation. So yes, we do have a public facing component to our training programs through the the Western Center.

Traveler:  So Ian, a lot of the work I think initially started out around log structures, homesteader cabins and whatnot. But there’s a lot more to that. I mean, you’ve worked in Bandelier National Monument, I believe on the cavates down there, and doing some some studies and some research. How does your program approach archaeological sites? And what’s its role in looking at those sites?

Hough: I think the Western Center has always had a focus on log structures and their preservation. The Vanishing Treasures program had its origins in the Southwestern United States, where there are a lot of standing architectural remains from archaeological sites that are, you know, 800, 900, 1,000 years old or more. And so we have focused on archaeological structures since the beginning of the program. In fact, it was the deterioration and a lack of training and an ageing workforce back in the 1990s, the middle 1990s, that really caught the attention of not only the crew members and the staff who are responsible for preserving those places, but also superintendents and regional directors, and then the director for the National Park Service. Understanding that these ancient architectural remains were falling apart and we didn’t have the capability or the skill to preserve them in perpetuity. And that something needed to be developed, a program needed to be developed to address those structures, specifically on archaeological sites. So when we think back at the history of the Vanishing Treasures program, places like Aztec Ruin [National Monument] and Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, and Wupatki and Salinas Pueblo Missions, all of those places have large archaeological components with above-ground standing original walls. And that’s a real challenge for people involved with preservation. The trick is that these are incomplete architectural systems. So we don’t have the roofs, we don’t have the doors, we don’t have the window coverings, we don’t have a lot of those features that help the four walls stick together. And so the challenges are, how do you work on the walls and maintain them in a condition that we call ‘as found’? That is, what did they look like 100 or 120 years ago when they were first observed. Certainly not the first people to see these, because these are places with ancestral history and with a descendant community. And so we were certainly not the first to see or observe these archaeological sites. But when they were first described, that is the condition that we hope to preserve the structures in. And that’s challenging because those walls are open to all kinds of environmental stresses. And if you think about wind and rain and heat and flooding and overgrown vegetation, these are all conditions that are pretty typical of archaeological sites in the Southwest. And all of those are impactful to architectural remains. So it’s a real challenge to do a little bit of work that keeps the walls resilient to degradation, but also does not replicate or, you know, present a structure that’s been rebuilt. We try to avoid that at all cost.

Traveler: And I guess it’s, in some aspects, it can be a daunting program for the National Park Service as a whole. Because you have the known structures and the unknown structures when you look at parks as big as say, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, or the backcountry of Canyonlands [National Park] or even Mesa Verde. Who knows what is out there? And that’s not your role, to find those places. That’s where the individual park units have to do the field work, so to speak?

The Vanishing Treasures crew at work in Canyonlands National Park/NPS file

Hough: That’s true. And a lot of parks in the system, especially the larger parks, like you mentioned, they have an incomplete inventory of their archaeological sites. It’s very typical for the larger parks to have less than 10 percent of all their archaeological sites inventoried. A better way to say that is less than 10 percent of their land area systematically surveyed to identify archaeological sites. All of that takes time and money and we just we don’t have unlimited resources to do that.

Traveler: Less than 10 percent?

Hough: Well, I mean, every park is different. Some parks have a lot more land that has been surveyed, some parks do not. Wupatki, for example, has a nearly complete inventory. But you know, it is a little bit more than 30,000 acres. Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon, those are multi-million-acre parks. So a lot bigger land area, and a lot more potential archaeological sites. 

Traveler: I seem to recall, and maybe I’m wrong, I’ve seen one figure say that less than 2 percent of Canyonlands National Park had been surveyed for archaeological resources.

Hough: It’s a big park. Grand Canyon is a little bit bigger. They’re probably, 7, 8 or 9 percent surveyed. And what the Vanishing Treasuers program brings to those parks is some guidance on how they might go about documenting those architectural remains when they find them. And if the parks are documenting their architecture, especially looking at structures from the point of view of somebody who’s going to be responsible for preserving those sites, what are the unique conditions of those structures? And what are the unique treatments that we might try in helping those structures stay upright and able to resist the the impacts of weather and and normal degradation? So we have guidance on how that documentation might be consistent across the region.

Traveler: With the ongoing drought here in the Southwest, everybody knows Lake Powell dropped to historic lows, historic in context of when the Glen Canyon Dam was created. Did that lake level drop reveal archaeological resources that had to be identified and documented?

Hough: It did. I think it dropped to a point where archaeological sites that had been documented prior to the dam were re-exposed, as well as archaeological sites that had not been documented before being exposed. And so they were in a position to get to those sites and see what the condition was after being underwater for so many years. And so it’s surprising that some archaeological sites in that condition that had been submerged for that long showed not as much damage as you would think. Whereas other sites look like they were hardly recognizable, especially archaeological sites that are near a shoreline where wave action hits the shore and reworks the soil. Archaeological sites that are located in those situations are damaged more severely than an archaeological site that might be submerged more deeply.

Traveler:  I guess there was something similar in Grand Canyon with how BuRec [Bureau of Reclamation] was managing releases from Lake Powell, and the different water flows, I believe, damaged some archaeological resources, as well as exposing some.

Hough: That’s true. But then also introducing sediment into that system that helped cover exposed archaeological sites back up. When the wind reworks those silts and those sands and gently blows across the landscape that can benefit archaeological features that have been exposed and eroded by providing more stability with generally repairing those features.

Traveler:  I had the opportunity, I think it was late October, early November of 2022, to go down to Bandelier National Monument, which is a fascinating place and I think it doesn’t get enough attention and maybe that’s a good thing because we’re dealing with crowds and National Park System. But it’s just a fascinating park, and you guys did some work down there to develop methods to identify document, conserve, and maintain the cavates. That must have been a fun project.

The drop in Lake Powell in 2022 revealed long-submerged archaeological sites/NPS file

Hough: Yeah, I think a couple of our staff members spent many years at Bandelier helping do that conservation work. They helped the park in preserving these really delicate and very vulnerable types of archaeological sites. The material that those cavates are carved into is very friable, and does not hold up well to just normal erosion and normal visitor traffic and foot traffic and that kind of thing. So it benefited the park in bringing some unique ways of documenting that damage and some treatment types to not stopping the erosion, but at least slowing it down. What it also did was for the staff members that worked on those projects, they took the skills and the methods and the materials that they learned at Bandelier and applied those out in other parks, helping those other parks understand what worked well, what didn’t work.

Traveler: We touched briefly on climate change in terms of the dropping of Lake Powell and what was revealed there. Has climate change increased your workload recently.

Hough: Boy, has it. We hear from parks across the region about especially these record-breaking weather events. You know, wind storms and thunderstorms with record amounts of precipitation in a very, very short period of time. And the landscape just is not designed to absorb that much water that quickly. And so we’re seeing a lot of flooding, a lot of direct water erosion on archaeological sites, as well as structures where sometimes the rooms of pueblos turn into small swimming pools, and bigger problems associated with structures that just are not designed for and probably have experienced very few events like that, where they’re having to withstand the forces of direct flooding, as well as standing water in the rooms. 

Traveler: Is it safe to say that a lot of the structures in the Southwest, when they were constructed, it was a drier period?

Hough: We have resources that date back thousands and thousands of years, so it’s a pretty broad depth of time. And there were periods within that broader time period where droughts and very dry periods predominated across the region. But I think what we’re seeing now is on par or exceeds anything that we’ve or the sites have experienced in their 1,000-year history.

Traveler: What about the building materials that they used when they were originally constructed? I mean, do these these rain events, storm events, pose a greater threat to eroding those materials? And if so, what approach do you take to try and protect them? 

Hough: It’s tricky. They’re very vulnerable to that kind of water erosion. They were not constructed to withstand that kind of precipitation, for example, and they were constructed with local materials. If you think about a stone masonry structure or an adobe structure, those materials came from more or less on site, whatever was available nearby. And those materials are earthen materials, are not typically resilient to water erosion or extreme weather events. The structures require somebody living in them and doing maintenance, continuous maintenance on the inside and outside of the structures to withstand a thunderstorm or a windstorm. … Today we have remnants of those structures that are exposed to the elements and nobody there taking care of the building. So it is a tricky situation, trying to find materials today that are resilient to that kind of weathering, but not so strong that it damages the softer earthen material around it.

The ruins of the Spanish mission at Pecos National Historical Park reflect a dark history/Patrick Cone

The Vanishing Treasures crew currently is doing some baseline studies at Pecos National Historical Park and three other parks to monitor climate change impacts/Patrick Cone file

Traveler:  I believe currently you’re doing some field work at four parks — Pecos National Historical Park, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and Tumacácori National Historical Park — trying to gather, I guess, baseline data heading into climate change.

Hough: This is a program to bring, hopefully, a common approach to the realities of our future, both in terms of our climate futures, as well as the future of the materials of the structure and the operations of the parks. What we’re doing in joining those four parks is bringing in partners and consultants and looking at ways that we can do what’s called a vulnerability assessment at all four parks in a way where we can compare the results across all four parks, and then expand that to compare with archaeological sites and historic structures across the entire region. And so we’re trying to refine what our climate futures look like, at each of those four parks. We have a pretty good idea of what the general regional forecast is for 50 years down the road in terms of heat and precipitation. And so we’re trying to refine that down to the scale specific to each of those four parks. And with that information, then, how can the parks position themselves in terms of how do they prioritize the individual structures that they’ll focus on for preservation the future? What are the materials that they could use? What is the type of data and what are the indicators of the health of those structures that we can monitor with environmental data going into the future? These are all things that are just now this year getting off the ground, in terms of developing a protocol or a common strategy across the broader region, given the realities of less money and less people on staff to respond in an appropriate way given these extreme weather events that might come as a result of climate change.

Traveler: Is there a wide range of approaches that can be taken to preserving some of these places? I’m thinking about that Spanish mission down at Pecos National Historical Park. I can’t imagine building some sort of structure over it to divert rain away or something like that. But is the Park Service allowed to use some sort of 21st-century coating to preserve these structures?

Hough: It’s a great question, and parks are starting to ask that, and the regional office and my program is starting to realize that this might be in our future, to use some methods and materials that traditionally have not been used because they’re pretty hard on the resources, they would do some damage. If it’s not to the fabric of the walls themselves it would be to damage to the viewscape and how visitors experienced that site. If you think about Casa Grande Ruins down in southern Arizona, and how that modern constructed roof over the structure impinges on not just the view but how a visitor would experience walking around that archaeological site. You’re asking about coatings, and that has to do with changing the materials that we use for preservation, and if we couldn’t strengthen some of those mortars and other earthen material that grouts and plasters and whatnot, that we could use to strengthen the walls. We’re looking into all of those options, as well as options to prioritize those structures that the park is primarily responsible for and de-emphasizing other structures that might better be served with a natural cycle and less frequent preservation treatment work. So we’re looking at all options. And that is part of this climate change program with the Spanish missions program, to look at those alternatives, not just conceptually, but starting to test the materials.

So, for example, if there was a coating that could be demonstrated to be soft on the original material and not cause damage, maybe it expands the maintenance cycle a few years of that particular room or wall. The appropriate approach to that would be to do some laboratory testing, and then maybe do some test walls, off-site test walls, where you’re replicating some of the conditions of the original structure, but you’re not using the original structure to do the actual test. And those tests walls, of course, are modern constructions that are built in a place that doesn’t impinge or take away from the values of the historic structure or the archaeological site. If you monitor those test walls appropriately, and you set the parameters up ahead of time, then it can give you a lot of information about how those materials will perform under different conditions going into the future. So that is part of this climate change program that we’re talking about.

Traveler: Does a park have to invite you out to come look at a structure, or say you’re driving across the West on a vacation and you stop in at a park and you see a place and you say, ‘Oh, it’s falling down, it needs to be addressed.’ One I can think of is Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho, and the root cellar up there that, unfortunately, it looks like it’s just collapsing down upon itself and going to disappear. Is that something where the park has to invite you to come analyze it? Or can you identify sites that you stumble upon?

Hough: Both. By and large, the work we do and the assistance we give the parks comes through good communication. And that’s the communication between the Vanishing Treasures program and the park, but also between one park and another park. And we think that’s invaluable in terms of parks creating their own networks of experts and people who can respond. So we get word from visiting parks … or we’re driving through on another business and we identify things, that’s absolutely something that happens. But more frequently, we get requests from the park, a technical assistance request from the park itself asking for assistance with a particular structure. 

Traveler: You mentioned the backcountry work at Wupatki. Is that most unusual project that you’ve been involved with? Can you can you think of something, or is Wupatki it?

Hough: Unusual in the sense of satisfying?

Traveler: Well, like that cabin I was up in the Meeteetse wilderness with This Old House? I mean, that was a pretty unusual project and, you know, watching them trying to raise beams, just using muscle, sweat and muscle.

Hough: Lots and lots of stories in that regard, both on the grand scale, as well as the micro scale. But something in between, you know, a couple of years ago Glen Canyon National Recreation Area requested assistance with some structures that they have in their wilderness area in their backcountry. And the Vanishing Treasures program helped them look at it. They had a little bit of funding to get some work done. So we helped him plan a project in the Escalante District, and that was a 1,000-year-old, maybe 850-, or 900-year-old Ancestral Puebloan structure that was built into an alcove shelter with materials from the cliff fall and the sand and the sediment from the creek right below it. Just a great setting, a great wilderness setting and a real challenge in terms of how do you get do you get materials and people in there? And what kinds of treatments can you do in a situation like that, where we’re using the softest materials possible, where we’ve got just real simple hand tools to help get our work done. So we went in, and we were able to find a clay source nearby, which was suggested by people who had been to that site prior to us. But the source itself had not been pinpointed. But we think we found that source right there in the creek.

So we had to combine that clay with sands that were available nearby, and we looked to see what the appropriate sand might be and what the ratio of sand to clay, what the best mix is. You can’t have too much clay and you can’t have too much sand, it’s somewhere in between. So we did a little testing in that regard, you know, on the fly. This is backpacking in a dozen miles or so, and trying to figure this stuff out while we’re there for just a few days. So we came in with our understanding of what might need to be done, and then you kind of experiment and find what’s going to work off-site. And then once you get that down, then we were able to do some really, really light mortar and stone work on that structure, and hopefully strengthen it going forward into the future. But very gratifying, very satisfying and unusual in that we were so far in the backcountry, that we were very limited on what we can bring with us and what kind of tools and the ability to improvise in the field. A lot of times we try to work all that out ahead of time, right? So we don’t have to be in that situation to make stuff up as we go along. But in this case, we put ourselves in that situation, understanding that the original builders and the materials that they used were available right in the immediate area. At least that was the assumption. And that if we did it right, then if we reuse those materials that were available locally, we could probably come up with a pretty good treatment solution. And that’s what we did.

Traveler: That sounds pretty cool, Ian. A fascinating aspect of the National Park Service that I’m sure most people are not aware of. It sounds like very challenging work, but very rewarding at the same time.

Hough: Absolutely. To leave a site after having worked on it like that. From a distance you couldn’t tell that we worked there because our work plan did very well with the original work, because we used those original softer earthen materials. But then knowing also if you got up close to the site and looked at the walls, you could see where all the erosion channels had been filled and how the the mortar joints between the stones have been filled in in a way that strengthened the bonds between the stones and across the wall face. So yeah, just real satisfying knowing that we can go in and do our work in a very light way. And then contribute to the preservation of a place like that. 

Traveler: Do the other land management agencies, the Forest Service and BLM, have similar programs or do they borrow your expertise from time to time?

Hough: That’s a great question. I don’t think the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service has a program with quite the emphasis that Vanishing Treasures does, although they do have funding and people who are involved with preservation work. And they get that done through partnerships just like we do. They might not do as much work as we do across the region but they certainly are involved with that and getting these places some attention in terms of preservation. They do borrow us, for sure. We’re working with the U.S. Forest Service Santa Fe National Forest in the Pecos District to look at log picnic shelters that were put up in these campgrounds, up the canyon. And they’re having just some pretty predictable issues with wood deterioration and settling of foundations on the chimneys, and that kind of thing. All problems that are pretty typical of log structures in this area. But they did reach out to us and we are partnering with helping them, come up with some solutions and taking a look at how to repair some of those logs or replace them or do some foundation work. With the Bureau of Land Management, we have partnered with the Pony Express National Historic Trail and bringing them some attention to structures that are in need of some preservation work. But again, we’re limited, the Vanishing Treasures program doesn’t have a crew that we can send out into the region and do all this work. But we can find people to partner with. And that’s really the future of preservation work in our region, developing, partnering, and assisting and consulting with partner organizations to actually do planning and the hands-on work.

Traveler: Ian, it’s a fascinating program that you’re working with there, and we look forward down the road to see what kind of solutions you and your team come up with to try and protect some of these structures from more time. 

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