We go back – way back – into the collection vault at the Great Sand Dunes visitors center

By Madeleine Ahlborn | maddy@alamosacitizen.com

IF you have ever gone into the visitors center at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, you know it is a place where you can learn about how the dunes were made, about wind patterns and the ecosystem, and about wildlife that the park helps nurture. Did you know, just like any museum or historic center, this space changes its exhibits? Even if you’ve been to the visitors center before, go look at it again. There may be new and exciting displays of current research since you last visited. 

This is the last in our three-part series about archives. This time we talk with Fred Bunch, chief of resource management at our own Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Listen to the podcast HERE.  On my journey to the visitors center he brought me back – way back – into the collection vault where all the natural artifacts and historic materials are preserved. 

After a brief introduction and welcoming remarks, Fred opens a door into this room that is filled with cabinets and file drawers. Cabinet after cabinet, drawer after drawer, collections of plants through different “life zones,” wildlife found and preserved, bugs on tiny pins, butterflies. It just keeps going, and it is only just the beginning of the tour. 


Part 1: Cory Hubbard ‘For people who know what they want’

Part 2: Jeff Myers ‘It’s like putting a big puzzle together’

Part 3: Fred Bunch



Butterfly Files Butterfly Files
Fred Bunch | Flower Preserve Fred Bunch | Flower Preserve

Scientists and researchers out at the Great Sand Dunes are in collaboration with other high-elevation programs around the world. Shared knowledge allows us to learn more and see more of our natural world. 

Fulgurite Fulgurite

One of my favorite pieces that is “rare and unusual” is one that the biotecs at the Sand Dunes found atop the Star Dune. Pictured here is a large piece of fulgurite, made by lightning hitting the sand, also known as “fossilized lightning.”

 “This is powerful magic,” Fred tells me. I learned that not all sand is the same and this phenomena occurs based on the amount of quartz in the sand granules. Biotechs are not the only researchers who bring knowledge and light around these marvels. From a cultural standpoint, affiliated tribes have also shared their beliefs about lighting and the wildness the landscape brings.  

Points Points

Quick vocabulary here: “Artifact”; anything that has been altered or manufactured by humans.  What Fred is showing to me is a large piece of obsidian that can be broken or flaked out into  arrowheads also known as “points.” 

Lithophones: Litho meaning stone and phone meaning sound.

Lithophone Lithophone

Many years ago a man riding on his horse saw a stone sticking up out of the ground in the park, “so he did the logical thing and kicked it, and he said; ‘Dang near broke my foot.’” (Fred tells some enchanting stories.) This was something like 60 years ago that these stones were found. They remained in the collection until a local archeologist, Marilyn Martorano, began to research the stones.  

Martorano was featured in a NPR Colorado Public Radio article in 2018 describing these ancient lithophones. Find more information and to listen to the magic music HERE

Martorano has been involved in many of the park’s research endeavors, including the investigation of the Ponderosa Pine Trees. “Culturally modified trees” by the Ute, Apache, and other regional tribes. Read more about the “Indian Grove” HERE

People have been creative forever. Perhaps back in the day people were concerned with only the necessities for survival: water, food, shelter … but that to an extent is not true. Art is on that list, over all this time. Art and creativity still make the cut for human survival. It is something we have to do. 

Moving on from the lithophones, Fred shows me a petroglyph that depicts an outline of a turtle. This piece was actually replicated so it could be on display in the visitors center. This petroglyph was found in the park, buried under a tree root.

Petroglyph found in tree root Petroglyph found in tree root

The cast of this artifact looks almost identical to the original, so if there are any sculptors out there, just know you could use your skills to help in the field of science! 

We have seen many different ways to connect the cultural and natural, but in reality there isn’t a way to separate the two. Because of our natural instinct to make observations of our surroundings, we automatically place ourselves into the context of the time. 

There are policies that the park must follow and guidelines about how artifacts and records are stored and filled away. Everything is documented and saved. Space is valuable because where does it all go?

Files Files

In the age of technology backups are made, data is saved, but still the documents must be preserved in their original form. There are VHS tapes that still need to be converted to DVD format or exported to a USB. With advancements of technology our archives, in one form or another, must be updated so they do not become lost in obsolescence.

 A little bit more history about the growth and expansion of National Parks across the United States. Mission 66 was developed to accommodate the rising number of visitors to National Parks once the highway systems were built in the mid-1900s. Numbers increased from “17 million in 1940 to 56 million in 1956.” (source

“The National Park Service developed Mission 66 in the middle of the 1900s to expand visitor services and “modernize” park facilities. It followed the development of the US highway system and coincided with the creation of the first interstate highways. After World War II, the availability of affordable cars after World War II, increases in income, and better roads combined to spur automobile-borne tourism. Consequently, Americans visited the national parks like never before. But the parks were not equipped to handle the growing visitation. In fact, visitation to the units in the National Park System increased from 17 million in 1940 to 56 million in 1956.”

The “50 year rule” Fred talks about is developed by the National Register of Historic Places, which is administered by the National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.  A structure or site or place of cultural relevance that is 50 years or older is eligible to be registered as a historic place. For more information and explore listed sites that are preserved visit The National Register of Historic Places.

The Great Sand Dunes National Park is the eighth park where Fred has conducted research and been part of the community. He tells a story about coming home and the San Luis Valley in the early early years, when it was a lake. 

“There was a lava flow that dammed the Rio Grande and created Lake Alamosa. The whole valley floor was the bottom of a lake. Then there were frogs, here we are back at frogs, that’s why I’m wearing green. There were frogs that lived along the lake and they were having a good life. After they’d been there for a while the lake filled up and reached the southern part of the valley and the lake drained. And the frogs died. And the frog spirits are still here, so if you’re born here or you live here for a little while the frog spirit will get you. If you leave, you’ll always end up coming back.”

This is by far my favorite story that comes from the San Luis Valley. I didn’t grow up here but I am going on eight years bouncing around from town to town across the Valley and every time I move I find another reason to stay. 

Thanks for tuning in to episode 8, part 3 of The Unexpected Artist. A big thank you to Fred Bunch and the entire research staff out at our National Park and Preserve for all the work you are doing to keep the past alive and continuing to protect our natural resources so it can be enjoyed for generations to come. 

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NOTE: an earlier version of this story misspelled Marilyn Martorano’s name.

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