Human occupation on the Colorado Plateau stretches back at least 12,000 years, to the end of the Pleistocene. The first human visitors were probably Clovis and Folsum Paleoindians, although their presence in the archaeological record from the Plateau is faint. They are known to have been big-game hunters, and they may have contributed to the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna in North America.
By about 8000 yr B.P. (before the present), people of the Archaic culture ranged over much of the Colorado Plateau, hunting small game animals and gathering food plants. The Archaic culture dominated the region for about 6000 years, but they probably had little impact on the landscape.
The resident population of the Colorado Plateau today exceeds one million, a figure that may have been rivaled by the Anasazi, or Ancient Ancestors, during their peak in the thirteenth century A.D. They were prehistoric farmers, famous around the world for the archaeological treasures they left behind. Archaeoastronomy reveals evidence of their observation of the celestial sphere as it relates to cycles of the biophysical world, resulting in the development of unique calendar systems and sacred structures.
Today we are in the midst of a fascinating debate about what caused the extremes of population change and ultimately the Anasazi "collapse" around 1300 A.D. The Anasazi did not disappear, but migrated to the few locations where Pueblo people live today: the Hopi, Zuni, Laguna and Acoma villages and the pueblos along the Rio Grande River.
Other Colorado Plateau peoples include the various tribes that make up the Pais cultures--the Havasupai, the Hualapai, and the Paiute--who remained on portions of their ancestral homelands. The less agrarian Ute and the Western Apache were forcibly displaced in historical times.
At the time of Spanish arrival in the 1500s, about 100,000 Native Americans lived in about 100 pueblo communities in Northern and central New Mexico. Populations of all Native Americans were tragically reduced by the arrival of European diseases, and later by the military superiority of the Spanish entradas.
Numerous non-native explorers and trappers ventured onto the Colorado Plateau between 1776 and 1847, making contact and trading with the native peoples. They established limited economic relations with the natives but had little influence on native cultures or on the landscape. The arrival of the Mormon pioneers to Utah and later the opening of the west to other Anglo-American settlers brought an end to Indian hegemony on the Plateau. Today about a quarter of the residents of the Plateau are Native Americans, with the late-arriving Navajo having both the largest numbers and the largest amount of tribal land.
The total human population of the Plateau has increased six-fold since the turn of the century and has more than doubled from 1960 to 1990, two-and-a-half times greater than the nations growth rate of 39% for that thirty-year period. Growth on the Plateau is now outpacing growth in the western U.S. as a whole as people fleeing the urbanization of the Pacific coast move into the intermountain west.
As the urban population of the Southwest burgeoned during the twentieth century, the Colorado Plateau became the ultimate resource for the water, mineral and energy needs of the region. The land-use impacts on the Plateau are explored by Ray Wheeler in his essay, The Grand Plan.
The growth of tourism and recreation has been even more dramatic. Visits to the 27 National Service units on the Colorado Plateau increased 94% between 1981 and 1994. The popularity of 4WD vehicles and jeeping has opened large tracts of formerly relatively inaccessible public lands to anyone with access to such a vehicle.
Human agents of change that have significantly affected the status of Colorado Plateau ecosystems include forest management practices, grazing, logging, mining, power generation, introduction of non-native species, dams and water diversion, and fragmentation of wildlands by roads and other construction. The rapid deterioration of fragile landscapes throughout the Southwest is being viewed by many scientists and public land managers as an emerging ecological crisis.
Native Americans and the Environment. A comprehensive survey of twentieth century environmental issues facing Native Americans on the Colorado Plateau and throughout the Southwest, including discussions of agriculture, logging, mining, grazing, water rights, and tourism.
The Social and Ecological Consequences of Early Cattle Ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin. Examines the early development of cattle ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin, the various factors which contributed to overgrazing in the region, and the pervasive effects that early commercial cattle ranching had on the local environment. Adapted from a published journal article by William S. Abruzzi.
Ecology and Mormon colonization in the Little Colorado River Basin, Arizona. The successful agricultural settlement by Mormon pioneers of the arid and climatically variable Colorado Plateau was eventually achieved by a system of tithing redistribution. An original land-use essay for CP-LUHNA by Dr. William S. Abruzzi.
The Changing Physical Environment of the Hopi Indians of Arizona. This abstract from a classic 1942 paper by John T. Hack describes the geomorphology of the Hopi country, their dry-farming methods, the effects of a recent period of arroyo-cutting, the use of sand dunes as a means of deciphering climatic change, and evidence for the effect of the changing physical environment on ancient farming.