Human history in what the U.S. knows today as Guadalupe Mountains National Park dates back more than 10,000 years to the heyday of the Mescalero Apaches and earlier. Guadalupe is one of four sacred mountains, including Sierra Blanca, Three Sisters Mountain and Oscura Mountain Peak, that “represent the directions of everyday life for our Apache people,” says the website of the Mescalero Apache.
The Texas park is in Indian Country Today Media Network’s National Park Spotlight park this week because the state’s recent wildfires have put it at risk. The National Park Service (NPS) is “temporarily restrict[ing] all ignition sources within the park,” the federal agency said in a press release on May 12. The National Interagency Fire Center predicted “critical fire weather conditions” across eastern and southern New Mexico, western Texas and Oklahoma given strong winds of 25 to 45 miles per hour and low humidity.
Long before its 1972 designation as a national park, the 8,749-foot-high Guadalupe Peak was revered by the Mescalero Apache, who believed that the mountain gods, ga-he, “were presented to the people in a cave in the mountains,” according to an essay about Guadalupe and the Mescaleros written by Donna R. Stern and Nicole G. Stern in American Indian Places: A Historical Guidebook, by Frances H. Kennedy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).
About 265 million years ago, during the Permian period, these “mountains” were actually a reef under a huge tropical ocean. The ocean evaporated and silt covered the reef. A geographic upheaval exposed the reef itself, and today it is “one of the finest examples of an ancient, marine fossil reef on Earth,” the NPS says.
According to National Geographic, evidence such as pottery, baskets and spear tips found in the mountains indicate that human contact goes back at least 12,000 years, when people hunted camels, mammoths and other animals that roamed the region at the end of the Ice Age.
Pictographs of buffalo and other images are also still visible around the park, the NPS says on its site. The NPS preserves this and other history at the Frijole and Williams ranches and the ruins of the Pinery Station. The park is known as a hidden gem because of its innocuous desert countenance fronted by the imposing rock face known as El Capitan.
The park has hundreds of miles of trails that park officials are hoping people will still use. But “because of extreme fire danger, continuous days of red flag conditions, reduced availability of fire fighting resources, and rapid rates of fire spread, we have come to the decision that this step is necessary to protect park resources and structures and to ensure the safety of park visitors and staff,” Acting Superintendent Fred Armstrong said in reference to the ignition ban, in the NPS statement.
This means no “camp stoves, lanterns or any other ignition sources will be allowed in the front-country or backcountry, no smoking will be allowed on trails or in the backcountry, and smoking will only be allowed within personal vehicles or on asphalt or hard-packed parking areas at least 30 feet away from any combustible vegetation at Pine Springs, Dog Canyon, Frijole Ranch, Pinery and McKittrick Canyon parking areas,” the NPS stated. This is in addition to open flames, campfires or barbecues, which are never permitted, the NPS said.
Armstrong noted that the park is staying open despite recent fires elsewhere in Texas and the closure of adjacent national forest due to fire hazard and said he hoped that the measures would not deter people from visiting.
However “at this time the risk of human-caused fires is too high, and we are concerned not only about the risk to park natural and cultural resources, but also to visitors, staff and volunteers,” he added. “Under these conditions, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to evacuate anyone from remote areas of the park should a fire start. We are continuing to monitor conditions and will re-evaluate this closure should conditions change and significantly decrease fire danger.”