Sunday, October 13, 2013

Postcard: The Vermillion Cliffs

Magnificent Possessions:
Who's to Protect What's Left of the West?

     The Vermillion Cliffs extend all the way from the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona to the Escalante Mountains in southern Utah. Imagine a vast arc of flaming rock with the Colorado River at one end and the Utah border at the other, the cliff's deep crimsons and magentas running along 25 miles of eternally stressed sandstone.

     The cliffs can be seen from state  highway Alternate 89, which takes the low road from Page, Ariz., to Kanab, Utah, once the southern hub of the Mormons' land of Deseret. This is the so-called Arizona Strip, cut off from southern access by the millennial crack of the canyon, as rich in prehistory as it is in geology, with distant plateaus with old Piute names—Shivwit, Uinkaret, Kaibab. Wind and water shaped them, the broad valleys silver-green with sagebrush and juniper, and the high forested tablelands of confusing, sometimes frightening aspect.
     Atop the Vermillion Cliffs sits the Paria Plateau, named for the ancient occupiers of this back pocket of the West. The Paria have been gone from this landscape for roughly a thousand years, but they and other Native Americans left behind artifacts and ghostly remains of dwellings that serve as a palimpsest of ancient civilizations, if only you have eyes to see them.
     Peter W. Bungart, an archaeologist, does. He explained that the Ancient Puebloans, once referred to as Anasazi ("ancient enemies" in Navajo), arrived c. 300 B.C. and introduced agriculture. "They made pottery," he said, "because they were growing squash, corn, and beans, which required pots."
     He was standing on a sloping shoulder of the plateau, still under the Vermillion Cliffs. In shorts and brimmed canvas hat, a pack on his back containing lunch (bread and avocados), topo maps, a battery-run global positioning system (GPS) device, and other tools of the itinerant student of the long gone, Bungart looked like a day hiker. All around us, in red sand under blue sky, lay some of the pottery shards as well as knapped flint and smooth stones used as tools that had been cast in their millions by the elements and by various peoples across thousands of square miles.
     Bungart could pick up any one of those artifacts and tell you its provenance. However, much of this reliquary lies in the midst of impromptu tracks of all-terrain vehicles. He was employed by the Wilderness Society to "inventory" this part of the vast, arid Southwest that has drawn hundreds of archaeologists to the hottest research turf on earth. The Paria Plateau and Vermillion Cliffs form part of the relatively young National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), some 26 million federal acres in large, scattered parcels in the West, kept intact not as national parks but as spectacular public space.

     The NLCS—bureaucracy's uninspired name for a heroic vision—was established back in 2000 by President Clinton's secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, to provide extra protection for whole landscapes. But most Americans have still never heard of it. The system's sheer size and complexity—more than 200 separate parcels from New Mexico's Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks to Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou range, from the Upper Missouri River Breaks in Montana to California's Carrizo Plain—defy easy description.
     In short, the NLCS embodies, in the West, the last and best of old-time America. And locked within its gorgeous, commodious confines are answers to some of the country's most fascinating cultural and scientific ­mysteries. One way to ensure continued protection is to compile lists of the prehistoric structures and objects of what could liberally be construed as a kind of American Mesopotamia. Extensive evidence of ancient cultures is required for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, the main mechanism for protection.

     But there are useful laws other than the National Historic Preservation Act—the source of the National Register—including the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Recording evidence of prior habitation by Homo sapiens puts some brakes on business as usual—energy exploitation, mining, lumbering, and grazing—and the more evidence, the better.
     We walked on through a scatter of painted pottery shards, then plain, ridged ones from broken cooking utensils. Decades of off-road vehicle use and looting have wiped out large settlements of departed Natives. But by chance we found ourselves standing next to an abandoned house site, the tumbled, mostly buried stones faintly outlining the shape of rooms lived in before the Renaissance. The subtlety of the arrangement added to its poignancy. This site would also attract those who steal artifacts from public lands, either for sale or for a private collection, far from the gaze of officialdom. "Pot hunting's a way of life around here," Bungart said. "The BLM needs to close some roads."
     He meant the Bureau of Land Management, a lesser satrapy within the Department of the Interior responsible for 260 million federal acres. Created in 1946 by combining the General Land Office with the Grazing Service, BLM must manage for multiple uses of these lands but tilts heavily toward development. The agency professes to lack sufficient funds to properly police areas like the Paria Plateau, which is true in part, but as Bungart said, "They lack the will, too. They're always working on management plans, and meanwhile the resources are trashed."
     On the way back to the highway, we stopped to watch condors, successfully relocated from California, soaring above the Vermillion Cliffs. This was just one instance of nature prevailing with the help of science, on land that belongs to everyone but without pavement or posted lectures on geology, history, and "sponsorship"—land that could be experienced much as it was a century ago, with few people and regulations, and much still to be discovered.
     The National Landscape Conservation System has narrowly survived despite the fact that "locking up" western resources on public land is frowned upon by privatizers both inside and outside government, denounced by western congressmen, and nibbled at by lobbyists and industry. Of the units included in it are 15 national monuments, 13 national conservation areas, 38 wild and scenic rivers, 175 wilderness areas and 600-plus wilderness study areas, more than 5,000 miles of national historic and scenic trails, a forest reserve in northern California, and a mountain in southern Oregon—most remain imperiled despite their official status. National parks are not included.

     Utah's 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument abuts the Vermillion Cliffs. It was named for a series of rising cliffs and plateaus and for the Escalante River, which has carved up much of the landscape, and it has some 4,000 recorded archaeological and historical sites, most of them eligible for the National Register. But these amount to only an estimated three percent of the monument's total number of sites. Culturally, they span 10 millennia and include a smorgasbord of treasures, from lithic scatters to can piles, from petroglyphs to old corrals. And most of Grand Staircase-Escalante is unsupervised and therefore unprotected.
     Administered out of Kanab, the monument has been resisted locally since its inception. Its workers have been ostracized in town; one who wore his uniform to the supermarket was advised that he might be shot. "The primary fear," he told me, "is that citizens are being shut out by the federal government. My barber is one of 15 kids, and they made a living cutting cedar posts on the monument. They're afraid they're losing some of their heritage, and their sense of ownership."
     The fact is, they never owned it or the cedar posts. Utahns, like residents of other western territories with significant public lands, petitioned the federal government in the mid-19th century for inclusion as states in the United States of America, formally accepting the reality of public ownership of much of their surrounds. The federal government then gave each state public land to help support its school systems. Since this bargain was eagerly entered into by westerners, local claims of ownership—or "rights," as they are viewed by revisionists of history—represent attempted takings by locals. People often ask administraters why Utah isn't subject to the same federal laws as the rest of the nation.

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