In Memoriam: Dr. Ana Steffen: A Legacy of Science Leadership

Departmental News

Posted:  Feb 12, 2024 - 10:00am

Dr. Ana Steffen: A Legacy of Science Leadership

Bandelier National MonumentValles Caldera National Preserve

On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we celebrate the curiosity, tenacity, and influence of women in the scientific community. Women in science have contributed much to humankind's collective understanding of the world, and at Valles Caldera National Preserve, we have been fortunate to work alongside one of the most passionate and visionary scientists in the National Park Service: Dr. Ana Steffen.

Dr. Steffen has worked for Valles Caldera National Preserve since its establishment in 2000, first as an employee of the USDA Forest Service, then the Valles Caldera Trust, and finally the National Park Service. She has served in many capacities over her tenure, including Archaeologist, Cultural Resources Program Manager, and Interdisciplinary Scientist/Communicator. During her distinguished career, she has overseen large-scale archaeological surveys, fire archaeology research and publications, and obsidian archaeology and geochemical tracing, for which Dr. Steffen is among a small cohort of nation-wide experts. These scientific endeavors have greatly expanded the state of human knowledge about Valles Caldera and the Jemez Mountains.

We celebrate Dr. Steffen's legacy of science leadership at Valles Caldera National Preserve and the indelible mark she has left on the people with whom she has worked.

From Dr. Rachel Loehman, Research Landscape Ecologist, US Geological Survey

"Dr. Ana Steffen has been one of my life's most important mentors and teachers. We met when I was a 17-year-old undergraduate Archaeology student at the University of New Mexico, and over the next three decades my academic and professional paths as first an archaeologist and then as a landscape ecologist have been shaped and inspired in large part by Ana's mentoring (lithic reduction technology!), passion for all things cultural and natural, and her unique perspectives that unite those two sometimes very disparate subjects into something that is much larger, more intelligent, and more visionary than either could be alone.

Once, over a drink and a burrito at Los Ojos in Jemez Springs, Ana drew a diagram representing her understanding of the Jemez Mountains' conjoined human-natural history, a 2-minute sketch on a cocktail napkin that spanned millennia of time and miles of space, and with a few pen strokes defined an entirely new and infinitely exciting framework for understanding the shared history of humans and ecosystems in her beloved home landscape. This understanding - this vision - comes not just from Ana's deep knowledge of multiple disciplines - archaeology, geology, ecology, history - but from her truly unique way of seeing the world, questioning scientific truisms, and questing for essential connections and relevance.

Ana has one of the finest intellects any -ologist could hope to encounter, and that comes wrapped within a person who is kind and generous with all things (ideas, snacks, obsidian samples, her time and energy). I am fortunate to have spent my career calling Ana my mentor, my colleague, my co-author, my tour guide through the Jemez Mountains, my teacher, my inspiration, and, most importantly, my friend. Most of us who have worked in the Jemez Mountains over the past several decades have been professionally and personally enriched by our interactions with Ana, and her positive influence on that landscape, its people, and its ecological-human future will persist for many decades to come."

From Nick Jarman, Archaeologist, Valles Caldera National Preserve

"Ana implemented a visionary landscape approach to managing cultural resources at Valles Caldera National Preserve—looking beyond individual archaeological sites to understand how sites, features, and isolated artifacts tell a broader story of how people lived on this land. Her vision and insistence on consistent, high-accuracy, spatially-enabled field data over the course of two decades of archaeological fieldwork has created one of the finest records of a lithic landscape in the National Park Service, and perhaps in the United States.

Ana has spent years building data sets on Valles Caldera’s unique interplay of climate, weather, soils, and obsidian chemistry. These data could eventually unlock a new way to date archaeological sites: ”obsidian hydration dating.” This dating technique looks at microscopic traces of weathering on obsidian artifacts to determine when those artifacts were created. This technique is already in use in other parts of the world, and Ana’s foundational research could enable future archaeologists to see the deep human history of Valles Caldera with unprecedented clarity.

Ana’s career in the Jemez Mountains began as the first “mega fires” began to sweep across New Mexico. A 16,000 acre fire is not unusual today, but it certainly was when the 1996 Dome fire broke out. Ana was quick to recognize the need for better understanding of how fire affects cultural resources, and better management practices to protect these resources before, during, and after fire. Her field observations and lab experiments have provided quantitative data on how fire affects obsidian and other archaeological materials. This helps archaeologists and land managers across the West better protect cultural resources during wildfires.

Ana is a dedicated mentor and educator who has taught generations of Valles Caldera National Preserve staff the finer points of analyzing artifacts made of stone. No matter their specialty, every archaeologist who has worked under Dr. Steffen has come away with a more nuanced understanding of this class of artifacts as well as a deep awareness of “unit” issues in archaeology: 'Are we measuring what we think we’re measuring?'"

From Colleen Olinger, Volunteer, Valles Caldera National Preserve

"My association with Ana centers on her coordination of Valles Caldera's volunteer dendroglyph survey team, of which I'm a member. This project locates and documents carvings left by sheepmen, timbermen, and others - nonverbal remnants of lives lived far from the spotlight. This project received a Michelle Obama Volunteer Achievement award in 2010, one of only five nationwide.

Working with Ana, I've learned that she knows what she wants and pursues that goal until she is satisfied; I admire this. Ana became my friend."

From Sarah Hall, Botanist, Valles Caldera National Preserve

"Ana and I worked together on SciGirls – a PBS program to get girls out in the field with women scientists. We brought a Girl Scout troop out to an area with many signs of cultural use and taught the girls how to see and document like an archaeologist. While working on SciGirls with Ana, it was easy to see how excited she was to teach young women about the science going on in our national parks. She worked really hard to share her knowledge in an accessible and enthusiastic way. She is such a great storyteller; her love of her profession is evident in everything she does."

From Lauren Ray, Visual Information Specialist, Valles Caldera National Preserve

"Ana is both a renowned scientist and a passionate, inspiring orator. Her remarkable ability to communicate and interpret science is an important piece of her legacy at Valles Caldera. When she speaks, she effectively reaches out her hand and invites you to see Valles Caldera through her eyes, where every inch of the landscape is teeming with lessons to be learned about the world and our relationship with it.

I have been lucky enough to have the office directly across the hall from Ana's. Occasionally she'll stop in for a heart-to-heart or to provide feedback on a project I'm working on. Every single time we finish a conversation, I have to sit quietly for a few minutes to process my deepened sense of awe for the Valles Caldera landscape. That is the mark of an incredible mentor, educator, and resource steward."

From Jorge Silva-Bañuelos, Superintendent, Valles Caldera National Preserve

"As an early employee of Valles Caldera National Preserve, Dr. Steffen was responsible for developing a premier cultural resource management program from the ground up. She established programs for collections management, cultural resource database management, historic structure preservation, tribal consultation, oral history, archive management, park reference library, and external partnerships. Over the past 24 years, she has mentored countless employees and colleagues and promoted environmental sustainability as a core value among her teams.

Of particular note, Dr. Steffen worked tirelessly - and in many ways single-handedly - to compile and prepare archaeological, historic, and administrative data that were used as the basis of the United States' defense in precedent-setting litigation over aboriginal title to the preserve. Due to her substantial contributions working with Department of Justice's Environment & Natural Resources Division, Dr. Steffen was nominated and awarded the Assistant Attorney General's Award for Excellence.

Thank you, Ana, for your substantial contributions to Valles Caldera National Preserve over the last two decades! Your work has left an indelible mark on this landscape and the people who care for it!"

Dr. Ana Steffen

Dr. Ana Steffen


Women in science have contributed much to humankind's collective understanding of the world, and at Valles Caldera National Preserve, we have been fortunate to work alongside one of the most passionate and visionary scientists in the National Park Service: Dr. Ana Steffen.

Dr. Steffen died on Friday, February 16 after a long battle with cancer. She will be missed.