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Zuni crew and volunteers collaborate on erosion control project at Chavez Pass
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Zuni crew and volunteers collaborate on erosion control project at Chavez Pass

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Editor's note: Anne submitted this article just before the monsoon storms descended on Flagstaff earlier in July. We've been waiting for an opportunity to run it in full.

As the sun inched higher, so did the temperatures, but record heat did not slow down a dedicated group of Zuni Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps members working alongside volunteer archaeologists at Chavez Pass, located approximately 15 miles south of Meteor Crater. The group was beginning the first phase of a long-term initiative addressing erosion issues while also documenting archaeological sites in the area.

The project was halted a week early because of Coconino National Forest fire closures and concerns about participant safety, but illustrates a positive and collaborative Forest Service accomplishment in an interval dominated by COVID-19 restrictions and unpredictable wildfires.

Located on the Coconino National Forest, Chavez Pass is a natural gap through a rocky escarpment separating the arid, lower altitude Little Colorado River Basin from the cooler, moister Anderson Mesa and Mogollon Rim areas.

Chavez Pass was, and still is, a significant cultural landscape for the area’s Indigenous people who migrated there centuries ago and constructed residential subsurface pit houses followed by above ground structures in the area. The pass was named after Lt. Col. J. Francisco Chavez who followed an ancient aboriginal trail through the area as he escorted the first Arizona Territorial Governor’s party from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Del Rio Springs, Arizona, 1863 to 1864.

The largest pueblos at Chavez Pass include three large complexes and other ancillary sites with an estimated 300 to 500 rooms. The Chavez Pass area is known to the Hopi as Nuvawewtaqa, or “Snow Belt.” The Zuni refer to the area as Kumanch an A’l Akkwe’a, and the Navajo call it Jettipehika. All have stories transmitted through generations about the landscape and earlier residents.

Natural travel corridor

Chavez Pass was a significant stop along the “Palatkwapi Trail,” a natural passageway to the Verde Valley from the Hopi Mesas. Katharine Bartlett of the Museum of Northern Arizona was one of the first Anglo researchers to identify the route. In the 1930s to '40s, she collaborated with Hopi who remembered stories about the aboriginal trail. Her work was followed by historian and Northern Arizona University professor James Byrkit’s research along with the contributions of then Ft. Verde State Park Manager Bob Munson.

In more recent years, a contingent of Hopi cultural representatives also walked and drove along the route, which is more accurately described as a passageway and natural access course than a visible, defined foot trail.

The landscape represents a transition zone from pinyon-juniper woodlands to the south and desert grassland shrubs to the north. Although weather is variable from year to year, the higher altitude Chavez Pass area may have been ideal for maize, or corn, horticulture since there is a frost-free season of 130 to 150 days and about 16 inches of rain in a good year.

The only perennial waterway in the area is the Little Colorado River about 30 miles to the northeast but there is a spring in Chavez Pass. Master farmers used a dry-adapted variety of corn and other plants utilizing their extensive knowledge of the land and what would flourish in that environment.

Over the last century, many researchers were intrigued by Nuvawewtaqua, including Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution, who visited in 1895. Because of its remote location, the sites were vandalized over the years and this damage led to a project mapping the cultural landscape while improving site monitoring. Arizona State University professors conducted field schools at Chavez Pass in the late 1970s to the early '80s, followed by an Arizona Archaeological Society Rock Art Recording field school in 1993.

Under the direction of Don Weaver of the Museum of Northern Arizona and researcher and artist Jane Kolber, field school volunteers photographed and made scale drawings of the petroglyphs in remote, challenging areas. This project has since been enhanced by the volunteer work of Bob Mark and Evelyn Billo of Rupestrian CyberServices of Flagstaff, two innovators in the field of digital rock art documentation who have been able to accurately record petroglyph sites in very remote locations.

The Arizona State and all-volunteer field schools were not only organized for research, but to document the sites for the future in case of vandalism. Today, trained Arizona Site Stewards regularly monitor Chavez Pass with the support of Coconino National Forest law enforcement officers on patrol.

Erosion issues

USFS personnel have been alarmed for several years about expanding arroyo cuts in the Pass, more than 15 feet deep in places and within a few yards of Forest Road 69. USFS hydrologists Tom Runyon and Kyle Paffett made assessments of how the work could be conducted while developing a long-term erosion control work project. With the assistance of archaeologist Jeanne Stevens, Coconino National Forest tribal relations specialist, the scientists made arrangements to have the work done by the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps (ALCC) program.

The nonprofit ALCC group partners with tribal communities and has offices at Hopi on Second Mesa at Kykotsmovi, the Pueblo of Acoma, the Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni and in Albuquerque. Tribal members are hired to assist with projects on ancestral lands, collaborating with public land managers on many diverse projects from historic preservation to trail construction and ecological health and restoration.

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Last fall, under the direction of Melissa Julien, Mogollon Rim District archaeologist, a crew from the Navajo Nation ALCC initiated the first phase of the Chavez Pass project by cutting and thinning the dense juniper cover of the surrounding slopes.

Jeanne Stevens was instrumental in organizing the “Wood for Life” program of the Coconino and Kaibab national forests to transfer surplus wood from Forest thinning projects to Tribal people for fuelwood, and the wood from Chavez Pass was also made available as part of this program. For 2021, she and Melissa Julien organized an ALCC team from the Pueblo of Zuni and worked out logistics for the second phase of the project with ALCC program manager Kevin Cooeyate.

Restoration process

Coconino National Forest hydrologist Kyle Paffett of Flagstaff, who has organized and participated in many ecosystem stewardship initiatives, designed the restoration process and worked directly with the Zuni Ancestral Lands team.

Zuni team leader Braden Coonsis has several years experience leading participants in the areas of trail construction, historic preservation, saw work and youth hiking. Co-leader Justin Cheama and crew members David Landavazo, Robert Riley and Brandon Seciwa also brought experience in invasive species removal.

Since damage is coming from almost vertical slopes where transport of the runoff is both steep and very erosive, Paffett suggested time-tested “past technology” would be the most effective and natural, especially because many one-rock check dams constructed centuries ago are still in place.

Some effective systems constructed by the team included a rock mulch rundown, media lunas, rock laybacks and one-rock dams, all requiring hand labor one rock at a time but tested and successful strategies for dispersing water flow.

Of special note are “Zuni Bowls,” which are rock-lined basins where water on a steep slope can collect and then slowly percolate through the top. By the time water runoff hits the valley, it is a much gentler sheetwash spreading across the land. CNF staff, volunteers and the Zuni team all provided the very hard work required to construct these erosion control measures designed to slow down, contain and re-direct downslope run-off.

Archaeological survey

Because the Zuni and Hopi maintain strong cultural ties and associations with the Chavez Pass area and have stories and traditions about their ancestors, cultural advisors Octavius and Alex Seowtewa from the Pueblo of Zuni were onsite to encourage the team.

The Seowtewas offered suggestions for future work and shared their perspectives with the Zuni crew, volunteers and USFS personnel including Mogollon District Ranger Linda Wadleigh and Southwestern Region Heritage Program Manager Will Reed. Reed is also the national coordinator for the Forest Service “Passport in Time” (PIT) program, which recruits volunteers to assist with diverse projects such as this to benefit public lands.

Research conducted by ASU more than 40 years ago was comprehensive, but GPS and other technology was not available in the early 1980s. Coconino Forest archaeologist Peter Pilles and Mogollon Rim District archaeologist Melissa Julien contacted a large contingent of volunteers for a USFS PIT program, tasked with relocating and updating the sites recorded by ASU to current standards, but COVID shutdowns interrupted those plans. Instead, a small crew of local volunteers was quickly assembled to work side by side with the Zuni crew.

Crew members are experts in their areas: Keith and Jeannie Greiner, who are Blue Ridge-area residents, have years of experience in site recording and ceramic identification. Lisa Deem of Flagstaff has more than 25 years of experience documenting sites and is head of the Elden Pueblo Project in Flagstaff, a public archaeology program. Leszek Pawlowicz of Flagstaff, who has a doctorate from MIT in materials science, works in the Archaeology Imaging Lab at NAU and was recently cited with Christian Downum of NAU by local and national media for developing a program that can accurately sort and identify pottery types.

At Chavez Pass, Pawlowicz took aerial photos that will allow him to make a detailed topographic map with 3-centimeter (1.18 inches) contour intervals so accurate that hydrologists will be able to better calculate the water flow runoff patterns over the land and better predict results of the erosion control construction.

Peter Pilles also collaborated with Chris Caseldine of ASU, who is deeply interested in this heritage ASU project at Chavez Pass and supplied the group with updated maps. Caseldine is researching the ceramics found at Chavez Pass and has identified new varieties that may provide information on cultural relationships within the Chavez Pass area. He additionally provided descriptions and photographs of the ceramics to investigate as part of the project.

As the camp was shutting down early due to the forest fires, forest archaeologist Pilles summarized the broader significance of the project that will continue in the fall and, he added, hopefully over future years.

“This really is an initiative that brings together a community of people who care about the land and cultural heritage. Vandalism at Chavez Pass is minimal compared to years past because so many people volunteer as stewards and keep an eye on things,” Pilles said. “Another aspect is collaborating with our local ranchers so everyone has a say in the process as the project goes forward. Bob and Judy Prosser and their family, along with other members of the Diablo Trust, all love history and are very committed to range land conservation and caring for the landscape. The Prossers have watched over this land for almost a century.

“We are all working together as a team, to do the right thing, and accomplish what we can to preserve this sacred community and natural landscape that has inspired wonder and admiration for as long as people have lived here.”

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