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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

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12/10/2008 10:19:00 AM
Agua Fria National Monument
Ancient battleground? Worth a closer look? Definitely
VVN/Steve Ayers
The three primary overseers of the monument working for the Bureau of Land Management are (left to right) biologist Jay Vacca, ranger Nancy Stallard and archaeologist Brian Culpepper. Agua Fria is one of five national monuments in Arizona and 15 across the west administered by the BLM.
VVN/Steve Ayers The three primary overseers of the monument working for the Bureau of Land Management are (left to right) biologist Jay Vacca, ranger Nancy Stallard and archaeologist Brian Culpepper. Agua Fria is one of five national monuments in Arizona and 15 across the west administered by the BLM.
VVN/Steve Ayers
The monument is spread across a single high desert mesa, that is effectively split north-south by the Agua Fria River. The mesa is called Black Mesa on the west half and Perry Mesa on the east. The river and its numerous tributary creeks are intermittent most of the year except during spring runoff. One of the Bureau of Land Managementís biggest challenges is stopping illegal dumping (left). They have an active volunteer group, the Friends of Agua Fria National Monument, who assist them in reporting dumpers and helping clean up the dumpsites.
VVN/Steve Ayers The monument is spread across a single high desert mesa, that is effectively split north-south by the Agua Fria River. The mesa is called Black Mesa on the west half and Perry Mesa on the east. The river and its numerous tributary creeks are intermittent most of the year except during spring runoff. One of the Bureau of Land Managementís biggest challenges is stopping illegal dumping (left). They have an active volunteer group, the Friends of Agua Fria National Monument, who assist them in reporting dumpers and helping clean up the dumpsites.

Steve Ayers
Staff Reporter


If you pass through Canyon de Chelly or walk the banks of Beaver Creek beneath Montezuma Castle, you get an immediate and clear picture of why both are national monuments.

Like most of the nation's inventory, their unique natural and/or cultural qualities are on prominent display.

But driving south from the Verde Valley on Interstate 17, looking east as you pass between Dugas Road and Sunset Point rest area, the landscape does not immediately lend itself to either of those prerequisites.

Nevertheless, what you would see out the driver's side is the Agua Fria National Monument -- 71,000 acres spread across a high mesa, split down the middle by the upper Agua Fria River canyon.

It is a noticeably barren and often windswept tract of low-lying hills and volcanic grasslands that, at first glance, lack any redeeming value.

But don't be fooled by the cover. The Agua Fria National Monument is worth a closer look.

President Bill Clinton created the monument in 2000 at the behest of his Secretary of the Interior, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

Babbitt was one of a limited group of Arizonans keenly aware of what lay among the basalt hills and remote canyons.

From the 13th through the mid-15th century, the intermittent waters of the Agua Fria River, Silver Creek, Larry Creek, Sycamore Creek, Ash Creek, Bishop Creek, Indian Creek and a handful of lesser drainages across the mesa supported a thriving culture.

Who the primitive people were, where they came from and where they disappeared to is a mystery. But there is no doubt that someone was living there, farming the rocky ground, building stone pueblos and possibly fighting with their neighbors.

Who first began searching among the 400-plus archeological sites spread across the rugged landscape, is also uncertain. The ample grasses that now inhabit those sites have been a favorite of cattle and sheep men since the late 1800s.

But in the 1930s, amateur archaeologist J.W. Simmons became the first to recognize that the vast upland mesa, called Black Mesa on the west side of the Agua Fria River and Perry Mesa on the east, was a significant archeological treasure, offering a unique opportunity for study.

Funded by the Federal Writer's Project, a program to support writers during the Great Depression, Simmons documented many of the larger pueblos and numerous petroglyph sites.

In time, trained archaeologists came to visit and soon realized that, due to its remoteness, Perry Mesa offered one of the best-preserved prehistoric settlement systems in the southwest.

It took several decades and a couple high profile prosecutions of illegal pothunters before their requests for preservation were heard.

Unlike most national monuments, which are administered by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management administers Agua Fria.

Its designation ultimately resulted from a change in philosophy brought about by Babbitt and others.

Describing the thought process that brought about its creation, along with others the BLM now administers, Babbitt once said, "It was time, I thought, to recognize that we are protecting landscapes, not making parks."

The result is a national monument with few amenities, to be enjoyed as "a place of self-discovery," and to be preserved as an immense laboratory for the study of those who once inhabited it.

Even before it acquired official designation, archeologists began using the unique laboratory to study its ancient people from a "landscape perspective."

One picture being painted of its former inhabitants is controversial, but it is nevertheless of interest in trying to piece together the mysterious story of central Arizona's pre-Columbian cultures, whose historic record ends abruptly in the mid 15th century.

A study conducted in the 1990s by Museum of Northern Arizona Senior Research Anthropologist Dr. David Wilcox, Tonto National Forest archaeologist J. Scott Wood and Gerald Robertson Jr., an amateur archeologist from the Verde Valley, concluded that the Perry Mesa people were "organized for war."

Their study and subsequent research by Wilcox, et al, paints a picture of epic battles, alliances and military expeditions amid the castle like fortresses strewn across the highlands.

Archeologists, including Wilcox, have speculated that the Perry Mesa civilization was part of the Verde Confederacy, an alliance that also consisted of people from the Tonto Basin and Flagstaff area.

They speculate that the pueblos on Perry Mesa were laid out as a defensive bulwark in a war that pitted the members of the Verde Confederacy against the great Hohokam civilization inhabiting the Salt River Valley to the south.

Most archeologists agree that the Perry Mesa people were closely tied either in trade or by other bonds with the Sinagua people of the Verde and Flagstaff.

Of the pottery unearthed at Pueblo La Plata, an 80- to 100-room pueblo and the largest in the monument, 95 percent originated in the Flagstaff and Williams area.

Wilcox believes the Perry Mesa inhabitants were the aggressors in a battle for survival. Living on marginal land, they mounted raids against the Hohokam, a civilization far larger and more powerful.

To even the odds the Perry mesa people built their defensively designed homes on the high ground above the Agua Fria River, giving them a tactical advantage when the Hohokam came north, up the riverbed, to retaliate.

Not everyone agrees with Wilcox's theory. Some say it is fantasy. His opponents point out that both the Perry Mesa and Hohokam people were diligent in recording petroglyphs depicting their world. Their petroglyphs and their pottery designs depict geometric designs, animals, human figures, symbols and such.

But none show pictures of people killing or attacking people. Life, they hold, depicts art.

It is doubtful the argument will be settled any time soon. But both sides agree that preserving this ancient landscape is more than enough reason for creating the monument and forestalling the vandalism that plagued it before the designation.

Those who lobbied for the creation of Agua Fria National Monument were also keenly aware of other reasons for its preservation.

The Agua Fria National Monument's riparian habitats are home to a number of native, threatened and endangered species. Its remoteness offers a sanctuary for a thriving population of pronghorn antelope and mule deer.

It is also becoming a major birding area. In June and July it is home to the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo, which makes its nests along the larger drainages.

The perennial stretches of running water are home to the native and endangered Gila chub, Gila topminnow and the desert pupfish.

The creeks and the flowing portions of the river also offer visitors a natural oasis in an otherwise rugged, wild and scenic landscape.

Access to the monument is limited, with the two primary access points coming from the Bloody Basin (Exit 259) and Badger Springs (Exit 256) exits off I-17. Bloody Basin Road takes visitors through the heart of the monument and gives access to both the Agua Fria River and La Plata Pueblo site.

Badger Springs Road stops at a trailhead that is a short three-quarter mile hike from the Agua Fria River.

The primary roads are improved. The secondary roads are rough and virtually impassable when it rains.

For information and maps visit http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/blm_special_areas/natmon/afria.html



Taylor Waste
Related Links:
• Agua Fria Friends


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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2010
Article comment by: Rem Hawes

To everyone who knew Brian Culpepper, I most of all want to wish you well. I can't imagine how tough this situation is on his family and friends. Because Brian no longer worked as an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), I haven't been directly involved in the situation. We know that Brian was found dead in his home shortly after Thanksgiving. We don't know the cause of death, but investigators determined that there was no foul play. We've had all employees meetings here to let everyone know as much as we can about Brian. It was definitely a shock to many people. Brian's family is planning to have a memorial in the Spring. I don't know of an obituary so I offer the following:

Most recently, Brian served as the archaeologist for the BLM Agua Fria National Monument beginning in May 2008. He had a strong Arizona archaeological work experience, a graduate degree in Anthropology from NAU, and connections and familiarity with the Arizona archaeological and academic communities. Brian conducted tribal consultations, and had experience in archaeology in a multiple-use interdisciplinary environment, as well as experience permitting and working with university and museum research projects.

Prior to BLM, Brian worked as the archaeologist for the Navajo National Monument, where he served as the cultural resources division chief, and served as contracting officer representative and research permit coordinator. In previous positions with the Park Service and Forest Service in Arizona, and the BLM in Wyoming, Brian worked on interdisciplinary teams and conducted NEPA work and Section 106 compliance work under the National Historic Preservation Act. From 1998-2000, Culpepper worked in the BLM Worland Field Office in Wyoming, where he worked on interdisciplinary teams to identify stipulations or mitigation measures for cultural sites for oil and gas exploration, rangeland health issues, and livestock grazing. There he worked with permittees public partners local, state, and federal agencies and tribes on BLM cultural resource management. Brian also played a key role in initiating the field office's prescribed fire program which is now one of the BLM's most active programs.

Brian is survived by his mother and brother. We share in his family's sadness and loss.

-- Rem Hawes
Agua Fria National Monument Manager
BLM Phoenix District Office
21605 N 7th Ave - Phoenix, AZ 85027


Posted: Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Article comment by: Bruce Wilson

I am seeking information about an archeologist, Brian Culpepper, who was pictured in the accompanying news story posted earlier this month on your website:

I was a colleague of his when he was employed at another monument, in northern AZ about 5 years ago. I was shocked to have heard rumors from mutual colleagues and friends, however, that Brian had recently passed away. I can find no official notice or obituary of this, however.

I wondered if your office had published any account of this, or had posted any appreciation or notice that would verify the matter. I wish to send condolences and contribute to a memorial, if that is possible.

Please direct me to a source that can further my understanding about this.

Thank you for your kind attention.



Posted: Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Article comment by: Scott Jones

Agua Fria National Monument is a great place, but it needs more Friends! To learn more about the Friends of the Agua Fria National Monument, check out their website at aguafriafriends.org.



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