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CU Boulder Museum of Natural History explores Mesa Verde National Park

Park opens to biology field researchers and students
The empty Far View Visitor Center in Mesa Verde National Park.

Over the past month, Mesa Verde National Park and the University of Colorado Boulder Museum of Natural History have started a partnership that could lead to new discoveries in the park.

Starting in late May, teams of field researchers from the museum have been taking trips to the park to study its plant and animal life, and a team of students spent two weeks educating park visitors on Mesa Verde’s natural history. Museum Director Patrick Kociolek said it’s the first time researchers have done an in-depth biological study of the area, and he hopes to give back to the park with some of his museum’s scientific resources. On June 30, he will speak at a symposium on the future of the Far View Visitor Center, which could become part of the museum and park’s partnership.

“We’ve had the goal, for a long time, of getting more of CU’s resources out across Colorado,” Kociolek said. “We’ve been hoping to do something out in the Southwest, and sending people to Mesa Verde seemed like a reasonable goal.”

CU, along with other museums and universities, has done plenty of historical and anthropological research at the park, but Kociolek said its natural environment has gone largely unexplored, especially on the microscopic level.

This summer, the museum’s researchers have been studying and cataloging different species of insects, lichen and other tiny creatures native to Mesa Verde. Kociolek himself recently completed a study of the park’s diatoms, single-celled algae that live in its springs and other bodies of water. He said preliminary results have uncovered a “fabulous” amount of diversity in these small creatures, although the results aren’t ready for publication yet. But there’s still much to discover, he said.

“The big question we’re trying to answer is, ‘What lives there?’” he said. “We think we know a lot about our national parks, but there’s also a lot we don’t know.”

Two CU Boulder graduate students are also completing internships at the park this summer.

In addition to exploring the park’s natural resources, he eventually wants to share more of the museum’s resources with the park. That process started at the end of May, when a group of students spent two weeks giving interactive lessons to park visitors about Mesa Verde’s natural resources. Rebecca Coon, the museum’s exhibit and program developer, led the trip, and she said it was a good experience that both students and museum staff might be interested in repeating.

“We’re trying to look at, ‘What can we do that’s a win-win for CU Boulder and the Natural History Museum, and Mesa Verde National Park and the visitors, including the local audiences?’” she said.

Kociolek said he wants to expand on the museum’s partnership with Mesa Verde in the future. Part of that expansion may involve the old Far View Visitor Center, which has been empty ever since the new visitor center opened in 2013. In the June 30 symposium, park officials will discuss possibilities for using that building.

One of those possibilities, Kociolek said, could be adding Natural History Museum resources to the building and turning it into a scientific interpretation center. He added that those plans are still in the very early stages and will depend on the condition of the building, among other factors, but he said the museum plans to continue working with the park no matter what.

The symposium, which is open to the public, will begin at 11 a.m. at the Far View Visitor Center. According to a Wednesday news release from the park, it will start with a self-guided tour of the building’s exterior, followed by several presentations on its past and future, to be held in the Rec Hall building from 1 to 3 p.m. In addition to Kociolek, the speakers will include architectural historian Christine French and principal architect Jane Crisler of Form + Works Design Group.

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