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Letter From the Southwest: Guardians of the Past Volume 59 Number 1, January/February 2006
By Deborah M. Norman

Volunteer stewards are playing an increasingly important role in protecting archaeological sites.

[image] Clay Johnston, a retired salesman turned volunteer site steward, at a Navajo site he is responsible for montoring (Courtesy Tom Whitson) [LARGER IMAGE]

Clay Johnston distributed propane in Arizona for 25 years before retiring to a hamlet up the road from Bloomfield, in the northwestern corner of his home state of New Mexico. There the tall, gray-haired retiree spends much of his time outdoors, hunting and fishing in the mountains and streams of the San Juan Basin.

About five years ago, an ad in the newspaper caught Johnston's eye: The New Mexico Site Steward Program (NMSSP) was looking for volunteers to monitor archaeological sites on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Johnston applied, and now includes "site steward" in his outdoorsman's repertoire. Every six weeks, he covers 80 to 100 miles in the backcountry in one day, looking for signs of vandalism or looting, and on occasion even finding a new site.

Johnston is part of a new movement in American archaeology: the growing reliance of government archaeologists on local volunteers to help monitor the millions of sites on state, federal, and sometimes private land. Stewards both report on natural damage to sites and alert officials to looting. As members of a local community, they are more likely to hear about recently looted sites than archaeologists are.

[image] Steward Rena Martin records a panel of Navajo rock art near New Mexico's Largo Canyon. (Courtesy Tom Whitson) [LARGER IMAGE]

The volunteer movement came into its own after the passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) in 1979. The legislation defined what sites are to be protected and legislated criminal penalties for looting. But public lands agencies--the BLM, Forest Service, and National Park Service--lacked resources to enforce ARPA's provisions, and soon turned to the concept of partnership with volunteer site stewards.

Texas organized the first program in 1984, followed by Arizona in 1986 and New Mexico in 1987. Today, volunteers monitor archaeological sites on BLM, Forest Service, and Park Service lands in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah.

Johnston is typical of stewards in that he is responsible for a patch of land that he knows particularly well. His sites are 30 miles from his home, and include rock art, the remnants of a nineteenth-century school, and a seventeenth-century Navajo pueblito. So far, he has not come across a looter moving dirt. "Most of the time, I see damage caused by the weather," he says.

Nevertheless, his region's archaeological treasures face more than natural deterioration. I accompanied Johnston and several other stewards on a recent NMSSP field trip, during which program director Tom Whitson showed us a shocking scene: a rock panel of centuries-old palm prints--each shattered with a single, well-aimed bullet. "That happened a year ago last summer," Johnston told me. Whitson said, "Even though we had read the steward reports--even though we were steeled for it, it was like being hit in the stomach."

Deborah M. Norman is a freelance writer based in Corrales, New Mexico.

* Visit the web sites of site steward programs in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to learn more about the important role volunteers play in safeguarding the nation's archaeological heritage.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America