Preserve + ProtectBandelier National Monument

A 2.043Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

To the casual observer, Los Alamos, New Mexico appears to be like any other typical American small town. Covering less than 11 square miles and modestly boasting a mere 12,000 residents, it is even fair to say that most people have never even heard of Los Alamos before 1942.

Fittingly, that virtual anonymity is exactly what drew the attention of the United States government to such a remote location. That year, the Department Of Energy established the Los Alamos National Laboratory and began one of the most significant, classified scientific research projects in world history. Under renowned American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, Los Alamos became the center of the `Manhattan Project’– which developed the world’s first atomic bombs during World War II. Three years later, when the United States bombed the Japanese towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–following the attack on Pearl Harbor–Los Alamos was officially `on the map’ in a rather contentious manner.

These days, however, the town of Los Alamos finds itself amidst a project of a very different nature. The focal point of this project does not lie in the National Laboratory, but rather in the nearly 34,000 acres of land bordering the southernmost edge of Los Alamos– Bandelier National Monument. An entity of The National Park Service, the significance of Bandelier to the region is a delicate, but very complex one. While it holds numerous significant historical, geological, and anthropological assets within its boundaries, recent years have brought tragic natural events and impending threats of devastating long-term consequences.

The crown jewel lying within Bandelier National Monument is the Frijoles Canyon, which formed out of the Valles Caldera volcanic eruption some 1.14 million years ago. Juxtaposed by the Jemez Mountains, today the Canyon is truly a hiker’s paradise. The Bandelier backcountry offers 70 miles of trails from the Canyon to the summit of Cerro Grande–rising some 10,200 feet above the Canyon floor. Besides recreational importance, the Frijoles is now an ecologically vital watershed to the region. Still, the lure and importance of Bandelier goes far beyond what a tourist might see with the naked eye.

"The grandest thing I ever saw."
As Park Rangers and local historians will tell, there has been evidence of human existence in the Canyon for over 10,000 years. Permanent settlements from ancient cultures still stand within the Canyon that date back to the year 1150. Once referred to as the Anasazi, the Ancestral Pueblo Culture (as they are more respectfully referred to as), viewed this land and its unique geology as providing the perfect site to construct cliff dwellings and establish communities for hundreds of generations. Archaeological surveys show traces of at least 3,000 inhabited sites within Bandelier, and have been able to tell much about the lives those countless ancient people who called the Frijoles Canyon `home’.

The Ancestral Pueblo that settled here were self-sufficient farmers and artisans, crafting hand-made knives and axes from wood and animal bones that they hunted within the Canyon. Pottery and fabrics weaved from Pueblo-cultivated cotton have also been discovered. Of all the places where the Ancestral Pueblo lived, the villages of `Tyuonyi’ (pronounced QU-weh-nee) and `Tsankawi’ (SAN-kuh-wee) stand today as being the most significant–boasting well-preserved cave dwellings within the Frijoles Canyon.

To the descendants of the Pueblo culture, Bandelier is sacred ground, "You see reminders of their presence here–their homes and petroglyphs", one member of the Pueblo Committee says. "Spiritually, our ancestors still live here at Bandelier."

The Swiss anthropologist Adolph Bandelier first entered the region on behalf of the Archaeological Institute of America, hoping to learn more about the customs and migrations of indigenous Southwestern cultures. When he was brought to the remains of the sites within Frijoles Canyon in 1880 by a Pueblo guide, he said, "It is the grandest thing I ever saw" and spent two years working to research and preserve what he found. Though the land underwent Federal protection in 1916 during the Woodrow Wilson administration (officially becoming Bandelier National Monument)–this "grand" place continues to be threatened by a number of potentially devastating factors, as National Park Service botanist Brian Jacobs explains.

"Since the mid-1990’s, the natural and cultural landscape of Bandelier has been buffeted by progressively severe episodes of drought and fire-induced disturbances with unprecedented impacts on vegetation, soils, hydrology, and cultural resources. These changes have been so profound that they likely constitute tipping points for many ecological communities in response to classic climate-change type effects."

To give one example of the type of devastating effects Bandelier’s unique landscape has experienced, over 95% of the mature pion pine within the Monument died during a multi-year drought from 2000-2004. The oldest trees in the region–exceeding 300 years in age–were almost completely wiped out. In addition to drought, beetle infestation brought mortal blows to several other species of trees, including ponderosa pine, aspen, and Douglas fir within Bandelier. Major wildfires in 1996 and 2000 also exacerbated the destruction of valuable natural resources. To say that Bandelier was in crisis at the tail end of the 20th century is an understatement.

Frijoles In Flames
The most prominent of recent threats to Bandelier came in the form of the Las Conchas wildfire. On June 26, 2011 an aspen tree fell, bringing down a power line near a fishing access area of the Santa Fe National Forest. What started with a simple spark quickly spread to become the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history.

"Nearly 60% of the Bandelier National Monument land was burned over by the Las Conchas wildfire, with soil stability of the cultural landscape severely degraded" Jacobs mentions.

Also concerning to the Bandelier ecosystem’s health is the impact the fire may have had on known wildlife. Before the Las Conchas fire, deer, elk, bats, and even bears and mountain lion–all inhabited the confines of Bandelier. The impact of the fire on these species remains to be seen.

Incredibly, if the Las Conchas fire was not devastating in itself, post-fire flash flooding created a brand new threat. All major drainage within Bandelier experienced unprecedented high magnitude flooding, altering the geomorphology of the area and heavily impacting all natural and cultural resources.

In the Spring of 2013, The National Park Service partnered with Atlantic–a remote sensing, surveying, and consulting firm headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama. Together, they decided to combat the devastation that Bandelier was experiencing by using the latest airborne laser scanning technology available. Much like the rich history, natural and cultural wonders–one has to go beyond what the naked eye could see to appreciate what Bandelier truly has within it; and the Atlantic-National Park Service collaboration aimed to do just that.

Developing A Plan Of Action
Atlantic developed a project plan that accounted for the unique physiographic and airspace restrictions in the area. In addition to orienting its flight lines to generally follow the Frijoles Canyon, Atlantic’s plan included 50% overlap with adjacent flight lines. "We felt the additional overlap was necessary to ensure the dense vegetative canopy and steep terrain did not obscure important physiographic or archeological features on the ground" said Brian Mayfield, Atlantic’s President and Chief Operating Officer.

The NPS required Atlantic to minimally achieve a point density of 8-10 PPSM (points per square meter) as well as a tested FVA (Fundamental Vertical Accuracy) of 24.5cm ACCz or 12.5cm RMSEz. Using its’ Leica ALS70-HP, Atlantic was able to provide a final dataset that exceeded 12 PPSM and was tested to achieve a 4cm RMSEz in open terrain.

"This project would enhance our existing datasets and efforts to document the rapid landscape changes by creating a fully populated geospatial framework" , Jacobs explains. "Atlantic’s efforts provide us with the geospatial data and tools necessary to properly assess and better manage disturbance effects on the park’s natural and cultural landscape."

As Atlantic began planning the aerial LiDAR acquisition and monitoring the post-fire flooding, September 2013 brought unprecedented rainfall to Bandelier. The local area received what has been estimated to be a 1,000-year level precipitation event.

"The LiDAR that Atlantic acquired was flown just a week after the largest post-fire flood", Jacobs says. "We are planning to use the new Atlanticprovided LiDAR to estimate channel capacity to calculate peak flow and overall geomorphic change."

Looking Ahead
From wildfire-response and post-fire assessment, to archaeological analysis and vegetation mortality studies–and now post-flood capacity, the value of LiDAR data proves to be a multi-faceted investment. The National Park Service’s team of scientists and researchers plan to utilize this new data over the course of 2014 to focus on highresolution analysis of all these corners of Bandelier’s vulnerabilities.

Jacobs adds, "So far it seems like very good data with much better resolution than our previous dataset." His team is currently focusing on artifacts in deep locations of the Frijoles Canyon. Atlantic’s chief goal is to assist Jacobs and his team’s needs and continue their partnership in the coming years.

"We look forward to updating Atlantic on our use of the data and sharing the sample outputs from repeat LiDAR change relating to the vegetation canopy and geomorphic assessment. Repeat LiDAR will also be used in combination with orthophotography, hydrologic models, and field data" Jacobs adds.

Gene Roe, Managing Editor of LiDAR Magazine, is just one of the many people who hold Bandelier dear, "I have never felt closer to the roots of this country than when I hiked into Bandelier–it is a very special place" he said on a recent LiDAR News blog post.

Atlantic is proud to partner with the National Park Service in the efforts to preserve the enjoyment of Bandelier’s nearly 200,000 annual visitors, as well as the preservation of a sacred piece of the Pueblo Community, and the historically rich town of Los Alamos.

Justin Henderson is a Geospatial Project Manager at Atlantic. He began his geospatial career over 15 years ago and has led dozens of remote sensing projects–many of which include unique environmental or cultural requirements.

A 2.043Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE