Preserving an Archeological Gem on Tenderfoot Mountain
GUNNISON, CO – A broad ranging group of people, including representatives from Western State Colorado University, archeologists, local TV and radio stations and telecommunications companies, reached an important agreement this month to preserve one of Colorado’s most important archeological sites while preserving access for organizations that maintain equipment on the site.
Tenderfoot Mountain, otherwise known as “W Mountain,” towers above Gunnison just 2 miles from downtown. Its iconic W symbol is the largest collegiate symbol in the world. But atop this 8,625 foot peak is a rare and precious window back to life in the Gunnison Country more than 10,000 years ago, when prehistoric hunter-gatherers perched high above what is now the city of Gunnison.
The entire summit of Tenderfoot Mountain is closed to the general public. The property, which is owned by the State of Colorado and managed by Western State Colorado University, comprises a delicate cultural resource that archeologists refer to as the “Mountaineer Site.” Researchers from Western and elsewhere continue to uncover information and artifacts that have dramatically changed the way archeologists understand life during what is called the Folsom period.
“The significance here is that the site represents one of the oldest structures ever recorded in North America,” says Thomas Carr, Staff Archeologist in the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation with History Colorado. Archeologists, led by Western State Colorado University professor Dr. Mark Stiger, have uncovered the remains of 8 structures buried just beneath the surface of Tenderfoot Mountain’s summit. The discoveries on the mountain were so significant that they have made headlines in the archeology community.
Tenderfoot’s summit is also the site of several telecommunications and radio towers. Over the decades, workers who have needed to access the towers risked damaging delicate archeological sites. Because these sites are difficult to see until they have been uncovered by researchers, the university has struggled with how to balance access to the site by telecommunications workers with the need to protect precious cultural artifacts buried just below the surface. Furthermore, the Mountaineer Site is protected under both Federal and State law and the university is required to take action to protect the property. “Sites like this need to be protected and they’re not always well understood,” Carr says. Many of the artifacts that have been uncovered were located just centimeters beneath the surface, which means they’re vulnerable to being disturbed or broken. “There’s so much more to learn, only a fraction of it is excavated,” Carr says.
During the summer, representatives from Western, telecommunications firms, radio stations and the state archeologist met to create a Cultural Resource Management Plan to protect the Mountaineer Site. The plan is designed to ensure that Western and the State of Colorado comply with state and federal laws requiring protection of the archeological resources. The plan also strives to provide appropriate access to the site for the operators of telecommunications and radio towers on the property. The plan was approved by the state last week.
The Cultural Resource Management Plan will restrict access by telecommunications firms to designated roads and parking areas. Along with FCC and other regulatory agencies, the plan sets guidelines for how roads to the property should be gated, how tower construction and maintenance will be approved, and how the university should lease property for telecommunications and radio towers.
“The completion of the cultural resource management plan is a fantastic example of a diverse group of stakeholders getting together and agreeing to a set of guidelines that protects this priceless cultural landmark,” says Western State Colorado University Interim President Brad Baca. “This type of cooperation is commendable and will ensure that Tenderfoot Mountain will continue to be a place of archeological discovery for years to come.”
“History Colorado applauds Western and the rest of the stakeholders involved for taking these vital steps to protect an archeological landmark,” says History Colorado archeologist Thomas Carr. “The Cultural Resource Management Plan is a great example of best practices for maintaining sites of historic cultural importance.”
Western State Colorado University provides scheduled tours of the site during the summer months. For information on upcoming opportunities to visit the Mountaineer Site, look for announcements on western.edu.