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Archaeology, Off-Road Vehicles, and the BLM April 20, 2005
by Lisa Schiffman

Preservationists, along with eco- and heritage tourism interests, try to protect ancient sites on federal lands in southeastern Utah

[image]This grass-covered hillside on BLM land near Bluff, now declared off-limits, has been heavily scarred by dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles. (Franklin Seal, Southeast Utah Organizer, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) [LARGER IMAGE]

Christmas Eve, 2004, near the town of Bluff in southeastern Utah--There was a biting chill in the afternoon air, despite cloudless sunny skies that reflected off the powdery desert sand and the red sandstone canyon walls. Except for an occasional rumble from passing cars on the distant highway, the quiet remained unbroken until eight men appeared, perched on motorcycles and quad runners and covered head to toe in protective clothing--helmets, goggles, and gloves. Surveying the open expanse, they revved up the engines of their machines. Ignoring the United States government sign cautioning visitors about the cultural treasures in the sand, the men ran their vehicles up and over the hills and washes.

After several hours on the sand dunes, the men tired of their sport and departed, leaving behind clouds of dust and a swath of tire tracks cutting across the fragile desert landscape, a visible scarring that would take months if not years for the land to recover. Bluff town resident Lynell Schalk photographed the damage and picked up the empty beer cans and litter that the men had left. "They left trash behind and ran over three archaeological sites on top of the dune behind my house," she says. A former Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ranger and special agent, Schalk spent much of her career investigating archaeological theft and trafficking in the Southwest and California. Despite her report to the local BLM field office in Monticello, Utah, she says nothing was done. "The BLM has written it off as a sacrifice area," she says.

What is happening in Bluff represents, in a nutshell, a larger controversy in the Southwest today over the appropriate management and use of public lands, and the difficulties that governmental agencies and concerned citizens face in protecting Native American sites. The Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency under the Department of the Interior, is responsible for managing 262 million acres of land, roughly one-eighth of the land in the United States, with the bulk of it in the West and Alaska. The BLM manages a variety of resources on those lands, including energy oil, coal, and minerals; timber; wild horse and burro populations; wilderness areas; and paleontological, archaeological, and historical sites.

The American public favors a balanced use of the land between conservation and recreational use, but achieving this balance has proved a tricky proposition in the West. The explosion of off-road vehicle use for recreation in the past ten years poses a serious threat to the preservation of Native American sites on public land. So does the increasing number of hikers, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts who come to the Four Corners region of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. That includes archaeology buffs, who come to explore the cliff dwellings and rock art left behind by the Anasazi (Ancient Puebloan) peoples.

Southeastern Utah is world-renowned for its rich cultural resources. In San Juan County, where the town of Bluff is located, there are 26,000 recorded archaeological sites according to Jim Carter, one of two staff archaeologists for the BLM's Monticello Field Office, which is responsible for the management of 1.8 of the county's 2.5 million acres. In addition, he says, there are thousands of sites that have not yet been recorded. His estimate of the total number of archaeological sites is 150,000 to 250,000. "The sites range from a long time period, going back 12,000 years," says Carter. "A lot of the activity has to do with the Ancestral Puebloan people. They're the showy sites." The Ancient Puebloan people inhabited the region until around A.D. 1300. The period between 1100 and 1300 saw the construction of the cliff dwellings, which he says are very well preserved. "That is only one type of site, however. Keep in mind that there is a huge time period before that. There are other very important sites as well."

"Sand dunes on public land are places that appeal to motor sports users," says Franklin Seal, Outreach Coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an advocacy group for America's Redrock wilderness. He points to off-road vehicle registration figures for the state of Utah that show an upward spiral over the past 15 years. In 1990, some 9,000 of them were registered. Today, that number has climbed to 130,000, not counting vehicles brought in by out-of-state visitors. Off-road vehicles include a broad category of motorized vehicles that include ATVs (all-terrain vehicles), rock crawlers, and dirt bikes that are designed to go over rough landscapes. Technology has made them into a powerful mode of transportation. "These highly modified vehicles [they can be customized] can go over four-foot boulders and can crush trees," says Seal.

There is now a bitter controversy between those who resent government rules restricting access to public land and environmentalist-minded groups who believe that unregulated off-road vehicle use is destructive. "This is the hot iron in the fire right now," says Jim Hook, owner of Recapture Lodge in rural Bluff near the Navajo reservation. "Old-time folk think land ownership should be privately held, better than by the government or the 'damned environmentalists.'" Hook adds that he does not endorse the "Sage Brush Rebellion" sentiments this attitude reflects, but many people in the region do harbor anti-federal sentiments, including a sizable number of San Juan county officials.

Last spring, in a show of defiance against the BLM, San Juan County Commissioner Lynn Stevens led a jeep safari in Arch Canyon after being denied a permit. "One-hundred jeeps took an illegal trip after the BLM told them they can't authorize the trip," says Schalk, who witnessed it on horseback. "They ran their jeeps up the canyon in violation of the BLM order." Stevens rode in the lead vehicle with the county sheriff, dressed in civilian clothes, sitting next to him, she says. "I was appalled that a law officer would do such an illegal trip," she says. A subpoena was issued to the county and the sheriff, but there were no indictments. In fact, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman just appointed Stevens to be Coordinator of the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, a position in which he will oversee the state's public land policy. Stevens did not return calls from ARCHAEOLOGY.

[image]San Juan County Commissioner Lynn Stevens in the front seat of a vehicle taking part in the Arch Canyon jeep safari (Herb McHarg, Field Attorney, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) [LARGER IMAGE]

Many off-road vehicle enthusiasts do behave responsibly when on public land and remain on designated trails. The problem lies with those who disregard signs and go off-trail, wreaking havoc on the land and running over archaeological sites, often unknowingly. With only one permanent archaeologist and two BLM law enforcement rangers patrolling San Juan County, there are simply not enough eyes and ears to monitor off-road vehicle use. There is not enough of a BLM presence says Vaughn Hadenfeldt, owner of Far Out Expeditions, a backpacking and hiking outfit based in Bluff. Hadenfeldt guides camping trips into the backcountry. "We are surrounded by lots of public land with incredible cultural resources from rock art to ruins," he says. "Walking out my front door in Bluff, right here in town are archaeological sites."

Hadenfeldt says he has seen damage to archaeological sites in several of the areas in which he leads his expeditions. Comb Ridge, which he labels the "crown jewel" of the region for its "myriad of archaeological sites" is one. The ridge is a large uplift of rock that creates a 130-mile-long spine across the landscape reaching from Arizona into Utah. Two parallel dirt roads provide access to it, he says, particularly on the side that is not on the Navajo Indian reservation. It is a prime location for hikers and off-road vehicle users. Designated as an ATV open area, off-road vehicle use is unrestricted. "I have been seeing impact to these archaeological sites. A hiker creates dots on the landscape but a four-wheel drive creates a continuous line." Low moisture leaves the ground vulnerable to erosion from tire tracks left by off-road vehicles, says Hadenfeldt. Button Wash, a valley at the base of Comb Ridge, is another locale inundated by off-road vehicles he says. "The area is full of ruins, pottery, stuff coming out of the ground. ATV users are crunching this stuff. BLM officials tried putting a fence around part of the area, but it didn't work," says Hadenfeldt. The fence was torn down.

The prevailing attitude that individual rights take precedence over government regulations makes it difficult to enforce restrictions, according to Hadenfeldt says. Defending their position, off-road vehicle enthusiasts use the argument, "well my grandmother can't hike anymore so you can't tell her she can't access this archaeological site however she can so she can see and enjoy it." Hadenfeldt's response: "There are lots of multiple-use roads--do we have to allow access that is destructive everywhere? My answer is no."

While some damage to sites by off-road vehicles is inadvertent, they are a great tool for looters and vandals, Hadenfeldt says, making it easier for them to get to remote sites. Hadenfeldt reports seeing bike tracks going up to sites in Grand Gulch, a dramatic gorge filled with ancient relics, and bullet and graffiti damage to a rock-art site near Bluff. It has also become more difficult to spot sites that have been looted. "In the old days pot hunters just dug big holes--now they're getting more sophisticated and even might back fill a site," he says, to elude detection. Technology and the Internet have exacerbated the problem. Hand-held GPS devices, which can pinpoint the exact location of an archaeological site, combined with off-road vehicle use, have made locating archaeological sites easy. "People post positions of sites on home web sites, which are widely read and promote visitation. You no longer have to be savvy with a compass. You just punch in the coordinates and go right to a site."

Assistant United States Federal Prosecutor Wayne Dance, who prosecuted looters in Utah in the 1990s, including the notorious pot hunter Earl Shumway, has instructed investigators, prosecutors, and archaeologists around the country about the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). Passed into law by Congress in 1979 to prevent the looting and destruction of archaeological resources on public land and Indian lands, ARPA expands the protections provided by the Antiquities Act of 1906. Violators are liable to fines, imprisonment, or both. One case Dance prosecuted under ARPA involved access by ATVs. "Not only was it a felony conviction...but it resulted in a forfeiture of their [the defendants] ATVs and pickup truck because they used the ATVs to commit a crime," he recalls. Looting is down, he says, in part because of the aggressive campaign his office and the BLM took in the 1990s to apprehend and prosecute pot hunters and through increased public awareness through education.

Off-road vehicles are only a small part of the problem, according to Sandra Meyers, director of the BLM field office in Monticello. "Hikers are probably the primary cause of archaeological damage," she says. "In concentrated locations you can get problems from off-road vehicles (like Bluff) but county-wide the primary problem is hiking and camping, dogs and pack animals. People climbing all over ruins, digging holes to make latrines, camping on archaeological sites are more damaging than ATVs." People often take pieces of the wood from ancient sites to build campfires, she says. Cedar Mesa, a popular area with hikers and backpackers, which Meyers says the BLM has designated as a "critical environmental concern for cultural sites," needs to be managed for lower impact. Currently a permit system is in place to regulate visitation although more drastic measures might have to be taken, such as the requirement that visitors pack out human wastes, she says. "We are all part of the problem, myself included," Hadenfeldt admits. "By introducing people in these areas and promoting archaeology. Some sites are not maliciously damaged, but loved to death. That is the result of too much visitation."

But a study on cultural resources at risk on BLM lands published by the agency in 2000 cites uncontrolled off-road vehicle use as the most "immediate and pervasive threat to cultural resources on BLM lands." With fewer restrictions than other federal lands, BLM lands have become very popular, the study says: "Urban sprawl encroaching on previously remote areas is turning the public lands into recreational backyards. The explosion in the use of mountain bikes and ATVs, and even the designation of backcountry byways, has dramatically increased visitation to lands that were previously used only by small numbers of hikers. This increased vandalism inevitably results in intentional and inadvertent damage through collection, vandalism, surface disturbance and other depreciative behavior." The threat to BLM's cultural resources has become a crisis, the study's authors conclude.

That threat is well-known to the inhabitants of the picturesque town of Bluff. Founded by Mormon pioneers in 1880, on the banks of the San Juan River in 1880. Bluff is a destination for tourists en route from the Grand Canyon in Arizona to Mesa Verde in Colorado. Its residents are proud of their pioneer heritage and abundant archaeology. There are numerous burial and other archaeological sites throughout Bluff. In the center of town is a Pueblo Great House dating from A.D. 1150 to 1300. Schalk says she has found artifacts on her property, including the bones of a human hand. "We have a rock-art panel [in the vicinity] that a BLM archaeologist told me was the largest and most complex site in San Juan County. It is definitely eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places," she says.

Far from being just a noisy nuisance, off-road vehicle use in public land surrounding Bluff, in addition to scarring the desert landscape and creating clouds of dust and pollution, threatens the town's tourism-based economy. "This county bites itself in the butt," says Schalk, referring to San Juan County officials and residents who support unrestricted recreational off-road vehicle use.

Left, recently installed to discourage motorcyclists from riding up a dune (middle distance), this sign near Bluff, Utah, warns people that there are ancient ruins ahead but has been partly vandalized. Middle, surface remains at the top of the dune indicate this was a dwelling site; the wall in the background is covered with rock art. Right, the view from the top of the dune back toward the sign shows tracks of motorcycles, on either side of which are dwelling sites. In the distance on the other side of the wash is the main off-road vehicle playground with trails encroaching into the area just closed. (Franklin Seal, Southeast Utah Organizer, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance)

"The town has spent a lot of effort promoting visitation to archaeological sites in the area," Hadenfeldt says. In 2002, fed up with the noise, pollution, and damage to archaeological sites caused by off-road vehicles in the land surrounding Bluff, town residents decided it was time to take a stand. "Not the tree-hugging crowd, but citizens concerned by what they saw going on around them," says Hadenfeldt. Schalk organized the Bluff Landowners Coalition, a group of residents who drafted a petition for emergency closure for a 2.5-square-mile area of sand dunes leading up to a sandstone bluff with Indian rock art. The BLM Field Office in Monticello approved the petition, but the paperwork was stalled there by a bureaucratic delay before being sent on to the state BLM office in Salt Lake, Utah.

By the time it arrived in Washington, attorneys in the Solicitor's Office there questioned whether it was a true emergency because of the length of time--two years--it took the document to arrive there from the Monticello Field Office. As of this date, the Federal Register Notice is still awaiting signature. "All they have to do is publish this in the Federal Register and the area would be closed, which would allow us to assess the damage," Schalk says. "It is very much an emergency because there are national treasures in the sand dunes that are being driven over and destroyed by well-meaning folks who simply want to have fun," Seal says.

"The Federal Closure Notice is very important to our field office and to the city of Bluff but is a drop in the bucket for the federal government," Meyers says. She expressed confidence that the Federal Register Notice will be signed within the next few weeks and will serve to protect the closure area until the new BLM Resource Management Plan is implemented. In fact, the residents of Bluff won their battle when the BLM announced that the emergency closure of 1,835 that they sought had been granted on April 11. The BLM press release noted that, "Impacts to cultural sites and the unsightly marring of hillsides that form the backdrop to Bluff are a serious concern warranting this closure order."

The Bluff closure, however, deals with a relatively small area, and is not the solution to the larger problem. "You can't just throw up a fence and say 'keep out,'" says Meyers. "A lot of people east of the Mississippi don't understand how the BLM manages this land. What governs our management is the Resource Management Plan. BLM land is designated for multiple purposes. Each plan lasts from 15 to 20 years before becoming outdated. The current plan, which was implemented in 1991, is in the process of being revised. It is a three-year process." The old Resource Management Plan has many open areas, she says, that will be changed in the new plan, which will clearly designate roads and trails.

Conflicting interests from public and political sources, from off-road vehicle users and county officials not to limit access on BLM land, and from the Bush administration's push to open up wilderness areas for oil and gas exploration all put pressure on the drafting of a new Resource Management Plan. Schalk foresees a difficult task ahead for Meyers. "This is where the rubber meets the road--if she is successful in making changes," she says. "We don't want to live for another 15 years with the amount of ATV open areas in this county because there won't be anything left."

Besides Bluff, other communities in Utah and across the Southwest have petitioned for emergency closure. A petition for emergency closure is pending in Hog Canyon/Trail Canyon, in Kanab, and the BLM has also received information concerning a proposed closure of more than 260 square miles at Factory Butte. And the State of Utah School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration (which manages 3.4 million acres of lands for the benefit of Utah's schools and other public institutions) announced the closings of two sites in Moab because of damage from off-road vehicles and overuse this past March.

Seal is hopeful that the BLM will take into account the Redrock Heritage Proposal when drafting the new Resource Management Plan. A comprehensive public lands management proposal that covers both the Moab and Monticello Field Office, it was submitted by local citizens and a broad cross-section of businesses based in Moab, Monticello, and Bluff. "The environmental community has been conservative in going about our assessment of which areas of Redrock wild lands need protection," he says. "Even if all of the areas throughout Southeast Utah that we are fighting to protect are protected, the vast majority of BLM land will be available for recreation. Even within these areas we have allowed for major roads to gain access."

He applauds the success of the residents of Bluff in seeking to preserve their town's archaeological legacy. The care and preservation of Southern Utah's unique cultural heritage will benefit future generations. "A lot of folks out there realize that this corner of the state is unlike any other place on earth," says Seal. "People are blown away by the beauty, solitude and drama of this land."

Lisa Schiffman, a recent journalism graduate of New York University, is an intern with ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America