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Supporters of Casa Grande Ruins monument expansion look to Congress

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COOLIDGE – An ancient Hohokam farming community and burial sites lie beneath 146 acres of farmland just west of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

Because only about 18 inches of earth are disturbed for farming, the archaeological history isn’t threatened, said Karl Cordova, superintendent at the monument.

“Farming is a good way to preserve resources on the land versus residential development,” Cordova said.

But the land is zoned for residential development, leaving archaeologists and others worried that homes may cover history and encroach on a site sacred to American Indian descendents and vital to the local economy.

The farmland is among more than 400 acres of public and private property at the center of a decade-old effort to expand this monument 50 miles southeast of Phoenix. Among the other parcels is state trust land with an ancient mound that may have been used as a dwelling or for crop storage.

Now supporters are urging U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, who returned to the House of Representatives last month, to once again take up the issue.

They say nearly doubling the protected land at the monument would preserve history and boost tourism.

Doug Craig, an archaeologist who serves as president of Friends of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, said tourists would be more likely to stay overnight at hotels and eat at local restaurants if there were more to explore.

“There are on average roughly 80,000 people a year who come visit the Casa Grande Ruins,” Craig said. “So if you could increase that by 50 percent, let’s say you get to 120,000 people here. That’s gonna be a big impact for the local community.”

Bill Doelle, president and CEO of Archaeology Southwest, said with the economy coming back it’s a good time to preserve the land.

“Development is restarting apace in the Florence and Coolidge corridor,” Doelle said. “So this really seems like an opportunity to set some of this area aside for long-term protection while the opportunity still fans.”

Commercial development including a supermarket and Wal-Mart Supercenter is already across the road from the park entrance. Wal-Mart worked with monument officials to keep the building and parking lot off the most sensitive historical sites on the property.

In 2005, former U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona first introduced a bill to modify the monument’s boundaries.

Kirkpatrick introduced a similar bill in 2008, but the House voted it down. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the expansion at $7 million.

Kirkpatrick then lost her 2010 re-election bid to Republican Rep. Paul Gosar, who now represents another district. Gosar didn’t take up the issue during his two years representing this area.

In a telephone interview, Kirkpatrick said she is reviewing the old legislation and looking at what she would need to do to get a bill passed.

“We’re having conversations with the communities and the stakeholders,” she said. “There’s not a specific timetable at this time.”

However, Kirkpatrick said the expansion would create jobs by boosting cultural tourism.

“I like this legislation because it’s an example of my approach to job creation, which is federal action rather than federal spending,” she said.

Coolidge Mayor Tom Shope said the plan has universal support around here.

“I think the state and federal government have too much land in Arizona,” Shope said. “But in this case there’s still a story to be told. There’s still something underneath there that came before us that needs to be explored.”

Casa Grande Ruins became the nation’s first federally protected archaeological site in 1892 and a national monument in 1918. A Hohokam farming community, including a system of canals along the Gila River, thrived at the site for nearly 1,000 years.

The monument’s most notable feature is the four-story Great House built out of caliche. A giant roof now protecting the ruins was constructed in 1932.

Cordova, superintendent at the monument, said the National Park Service can’t have an opinion on the proposed expansion.

“As the National Park Service, everyone is looking at us as being the land management agency who would operate those expanded lands and incorporate it into our boundaries,” Cordova said. “We’re not necessarily promoting the expansion.”

However, he added, the Interior Department typically expresses its views on such expansions before Congress. When lawmakers considered Kirkpatrick’s 2008 bill, the department declared its support.

Kevin Dahl, Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the expansion would have great benefits.

“Archaeologists and park enthusiasts want this proposal introduced soon and wrapped,” Dahl said.