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The Colorado Plateau

The Vast and the Intimate
Suspended in Time
A Textbook of Geomorphology


New Mexico


Aquarius Plateau, Utah
Arches NP, Utah
Arizona Strip
Black Mesa, Arizona
Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
Canyonlands NP, Utah
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Chuska Mountains, New Mexico
Dinosaur NM, Colorado/Utah
Glen Canyon/Lake Powell, Utah/Arizona
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Grand Canyon-Parashant NM, Arizona
Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah
Upper Gunnison Basin, Colorado
Kaibab Plateau, Arizona
La Sal Mountains, Utah
Lees Ferry, Arizona
Little Colorado River, Arizona
Mesa Verde, Colorado
Mogollon Rim, Arizona
San Francisco Peaks, Arizona
White Mountains, Arizona
Wupatki/Sunset Crater, Arizona
Zion NP, Utah

Black Mesa, Arizona

Black Mesa

Black Mesa, near Kayenta Arizona, ca. 1978. Photo NAU.PH.95.55.91 by Don Lyngholm courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University

Rising one thousand feet or more above the surrounding semi-arid grasslands,  Black Mesa, in northeastern Arizona, is a major geographic feature of the Colorado Plateau. This extensive plateau rises to about 8,000 feet at its highest point. Vegetation ranges from desert scrub in the valleys to pinyon-juniper woodlands in the uplands. Mixed conifer forests occur only on the highest reaches of Black Mesa. The Black Mesa and Kayenta coal mines annually ship approximately 12 million tons per year of low-sulfur subbituminous coal. Coal seams ranging in thickness from three to 18 feet.

Black Mesa's Human History

Archaeological study of Black Mesa has been extensive, largely due to federal antiquity laws which required the Peabody Coal Company to investigate and document archaeological remains within their lease area, a project that spanned seventeen years.

The region was sporadically occupied by  Paleo-Indians as early as 7000 B.C. There is abundant evidence of Basketmaker II occupation north of the Hopi villages on Black Mesa. George J. Gumerman, the project leader, unearthed important new information about ancient settlement patterns.   Prehistoric farmers returned to the same habitation sites and campsites year after year. They were flood-plain farmers, collecting some portion of the seasonal rains as they streamed off the mesas and flooded their cornfields positioned in or along broad shallow washes.

Francis Smiley and his colleagues at Northern Arizona University excavated Three Fir Shelter northeast of Black Mesa. There they found the earliest well-documented date for corn on the Colorado Plateau, harvested about 1900 B.C. This led to a question that has preoccupied archaeologists for years: how and where did agriculture come into the Southwest and how did it evolve?  (See The Spread of Maize to the Colorado Plateau.)

Old Black Mesa Ruin

Ruin on Black Mesa, c. 1932. Photo NAU.PH.413.784 by Philip Johnston, courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University.

In later centuries, the Anasazi culture flourished in the Black Mesa region. Archaeological studies have revealed that in the northern area of Black Mesa, Anasazi populations increased tenfold between 850 and 1080 A.D., exploding during this period from a few small settlements to dozens of villages. The increase was so great that only a combination of indigenous population growth and immigration can account for it.

Like the Basketmakers before them, the Anasazi planted their fields on river banks and in drainage areas since rainfall alone is insufficient for crops in this dry region. There is no evidence that the Black Mesa Anasazi attempted to manipulate water distribution by building irrigation canals or terraces, as did Anasazi groups in other Four Corners areas during this time. The probable scenario is that as the population burgeoned at Black Mesa, farming spread to smaller, secondary drainages of inferior quality, while hunting and gathering territories became over harvested. These problems, along with a regional drought during this time, are likely contributing causes of the complete abandonment of northern Black Mesa by the Anasazi by 1150. (See The Anasazi "Collapse" for further discussion).

In contrast, populations in the southern parts of Black Mesa began to increase as environmental conditions continued to decline. The southern escarpment of this mesa provided an dependable source of water from its many springs. By 1300, the entire population of northern Arizona was converged on the southern rim of Black Mesa. Over time, the climate shifted to more favorable conditions, allowing native peoples to spread out over the greater region. Many Puebloan peoples stayed on these mesas; their descendents are the modern Hopi. Northern Black Mesa remained unoccupied until 1800, when Navajo people moved into the area from New Mexico. These early Navajos occupied Black Mesa only in the winter, moving with their herds to lower elevations in the summer to farm. By the 1920s permanent homes were built by Navajos in northern Black Mesa. Large herds of sheep, goats and cattle, the Navajo economic mainstay, led to overgrazing on the mesa. Stock reduction programs by the federal government in the 1930's forced many Navajo to seek outside employment.

Black Mesa Today

Much of the central and southern mesa lies on Hopi reservation land, encompassing the Hopi mesas. While others have failed in this arid land, the Hopi peoples have farmed here for generations, proficiently growing corn, squash, beans and melons. The northeastern corner of the area is in the Navajo Nation, where pastoralism remains central to the economy. For decades, central Black Mesa has been at the center of a land dispute between the Hopi and the Navajo tribes, both of which claim that the area is their sacred and traditional homeland. From 1962 to 1977, the disputed land was proclaimed a "Joint Use Area" by decision of three Arizona judges, a development that pleased neither tribe. In 1977, the Joint Use Lands were divided between the two tribes, although mineral royalties from this land would be equally split. This ruling by no means settled the political and emotional dispute between the Hopi and Navajo. While enlarging the Hopi Reservation by 900,000 acres, the ruling still left it entirely surrounded by the Navajo Reservation, a sore point for many Hopi. This decision also resulted in the relocation of thousands of Navajos, many of whom had lived on the land their entire lives.

Black Mesa groundwater

Study area and data collection network for a U.S.G.S study monitoring the effects of groundwater withdrawals from the N Aquifer in the Black Mesa Area. Source: <http://water.usgs.gov/pubs/FS/FS-064-99/>

Peabody Coal Company began strip-mining operations on land leased from the Navajo and Hopi Tribes on Black Mesa in 1968. Peabody operates two mines on Black Mesa: the Peabody Coal Mine, and the Kayenta Mine, the largest coal strip mining operation in the world. This land-use is highly controversial, especially among the Native American traditionalists, who consider Black Mesa to be sacred. At the same time, Peabody Coal employs about 850 Native Americans, primarily Navajos.

Reclamation from mining activities have transformed a large portion of the mesa from pinyon-juniper to grassland. In addition, over 3.8 million gallons of groundwater are required per day to slurry some of the the coal to a power plant near Laughlin, NV, while the rest is sent to the Navajo Generating Station in Page, AZ by way of electric rail. Since the mid-1990s, the aquifer  beneath Black Mesa has been lowering, causing the reduction in flow or in some cases elimination of essential springs. It is unclear at this time whether the aquifer is dropping due to Peabody Coal's pumping for the slurry lines or from overpumping by other users to the west at Tuba City and Moenkopi.

--Researched and written by Shannon Kelly


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. See especially section on Peabody Coal and Black Mesa.

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.

Where have all the grasslands gone? Numerous ecological studies across the Southwest have documented the decline in herbaceous vegetation (grasses and non-woody flowering plants) while forests thicken and brush invades. Documenting the changes in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, ecologist Craig Allen considers the evidence that these patterns are tied to changes in land use history, primarily livestock grazing and fire suppression.


Littin, G. R. 1999. Monitoring the effects of ground-water withdrawals from the N Aquifer in the Black Mesa area, northeastern Arizona. <http://water.usgs.gov/pubs/FS/FS-064-99/> 9/29/00.

Nies, J. 1998. The Black Mesa Syndrome: Indian Lands, Black Gold. Orion, Summer issue. Also available online at <http://www.orionsociety.org/nies.html> 9/29/00.

Plog, S. 1997. Ancient peoples of the American southwest. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 224 pp.

Powell, S. and Gumerman, G. J. 1987. People of the Mesa: Archaeology of Black Mesa, Arizona. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL, 175 pp.

U.S. Geological Survey. Black Mesa monitoring program. <http://az.water.usgs.gov/projects/az028.html> 7/7/02

Wilkinson, C. 1999. Fire on the Plateau: Conflict and endurance in the American southwest. Island Press/Shearwater Books, Washington, D.C., 402 pp.