Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Abusing public land is an institution in the West


                                                                  God’s Remnants

The BLM administers 178 million acres in the Lower Forty-eight and about 100 million acres in Alaska. It employs about ten thousand people and maintains fifty offices in the American West. Twenty-seven thousand work for the Forest Service, which is less endowed with land. The FS oversees a mere 23 million acres in Alaska and 146 million acres in the West, as well as a much smaller domain east of the Rockies.
Every day both agencies try to manage natural calamities the size of small wars, involving a thousand years of history. One of the things I wanted to see while traveling through our public lands was how government agents fit into a landscape rife with tradition, management objectives, and the contending needs and fantasies of users. I imagined myself for a time in the green trousers and khaki shirt symbolizing the FS, or assigned to a beige-colored BLM pickup with a decal on the door and a view of limitless country, and limitless regulations.
The BLM's land in the West includes 25 million acres of sufficient beauty and remoteness to be officially designated wilderness. In addition, there are 70 million acres of wetlands. About 20 percent of America's big game animals roam BLM land. Visitor days, the measurement of use of BLM land by recreationists, exceed 200 million a year. It is as if every American spent a day in one of the remote parts of the continent.
The National Register of Historic Places contains ninety archaeological and paleontological sites on BLM land. Before 1976, when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the BLM had only to dispose of public lands; now it really has to manage and care for them under the rubric of "multiple use." That means a backpacker, a amateur geologist, or a fossil collector has as valid a claim on the land as a lumberman or a uranium miner. What had for decades been known jocularly as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining was forced to hire biologists, archaeologists, and other professionals to comply with the demand for broad and exacting inventories.

Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning the "ancient ones" or "ancient enemies" who lived in the Southwest before the Navajo. They were hunter-gatherers whose culture went back ten thousand or eleven thousand years. The Anasazi farmed in the shadow of red cliffs and created a dense social fabric over much of the Colorado Plateau. They dropped out of sight sometime in the fifteenth century, victims of war or drought or some unaccounted-for demographic upheaval, and left behind a wealth of artifacts.
The early Anasazi were known as Basketmakers, an apparently random term bestowed by Richard Wetherill, a pot hunter of renown, who in the 1890s amassed a collection of Anasazi artifacts and sent them to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I had gone to see them one bleak January afternoon, before coming out West. The collection had not been displayed in years and was locked away beneath the streets of Manhattan. A young archaeologist took me down into the basement and struck a match in a cavernous room to find the light switch.
Tall metal cabinets leaped out of the shadows, full of bowls in smooth reds and grays, carved wooden spoons, and bundled mats too splendid to be buried. There were dried seeds of rice grass, pumpkin, squash, and pinon nuts; dice made from reeds; bone scrapers; clubs; chert bird points; a clay effigy of a dove. The tiny corncobs were Mesoamerican precursors of hybrids on Iowa farms. There were trays of gourd vessels, hafted ax blades, turquoise and shells strung on cords, evidence that these ancients traded with others who had reached the sea.
All these things came from what is now public lands. The West brims with Anasazi sites; locating and protecting them is an important part of the mandate of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, and not always a safe one. An Anasazi bowl in good condition then fetched five thousand dollars, a basket, ten thousand. The goods move through the same marketing chain as other contraband, notably drugs, and share some of the same clientele.
I read a story in a Western magazine about pot hunters in San Juan County, Utah, who reportedly laid down a line of cocaine on the 'dozer blade and inhaled it before falling on an Anasazi burial site in a collecting frenzy. There were stories of thieves cutting pictographs out of rock with chain saws and loading them into choppers for collectors as far away as Germany and Japan. I decided to start my investigation on the Arizona Strip, the northwest part of Arizona between the Utah border and the Colorado River — a high, lost piece of the West cut off from southern access by the millennial crack of the Grand Canyon.
There the closest Interstate arches up from Las Vegas toward Salt Lake City, brushing the western corner and avoiding the canyons and other natural disasters as rich in history as in geology. Plateaus named for Indian tribes — Shivwits, Uinkaret, Kanab, Kaibab, Paria — march off to the east, principal players in the grander production of the Colorado Plateau itself, eroded out of a continent's worth of rock. The broad valleys are silver-green with sagebrush, beneath high forested tablelands of confusing, often frightening aspect.
There are no cities and only two blacktop roads on the Strip, a few satellite Mormon communities, and 3 million acres belonging to the BLM and the Forest Service. Some of the country is so arid that 1oo acres is needed to feed one cow for six months. It also supports black-tailed jack rabbits, desert bighorns, mountain lions, the Great Basin spade-foot toad, assorted lizards and rats, gila monsters, the desert tortoise, and an unusually large version of the mule deer.
The Strip is administered from St. George, just over the Utah line. There I went looking among the partitions of the BLM office for the chief archaeologist. Like most of his colleagues, he wore cowboy boots, a yoked shirt, and turquoise bracelets. His name was Rick Malcomson, and he wasn't a typical scholar, having spent twenty-three years in military intelligence. After retirement from the military he had stuffed himself with anthropological coursework and landed a job with the BLM.
Malcomson sounded more like a cop than a dryland Indiana Jones. Most of his friends worked in the sheriff’s department, he said. All were members of the Elks, as was Malcomson. Mormons didn't officially recognize the presence of humans on the North American continent prior to about 400 B.C., so being an archaeologist was a bit awkward socially.
He exchanged ordinary spectacles for tinted ones, retrieved his Thermos of coffee, and led me out to the BLM Suburban that was to take us down along the Virgin River. On the way we passed a deputy sheriff in a big white sedan, and Malcomson waved. "There goes the Superior Past Exalted Ruler of the Elks," he said.
I wanted to talk about the Anasazi, but Malcomson talked about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — the Mormons. He divided them into two groups: those who tolerated his smoking, drinking, and opinions, and "the bigots." The latter sent their faithful around to his house, to try to convert him; they had turned his only friend in the neighborhood against him.
"He hasn't spoken to me in four years," Malcomson said, taking a cigarette from a metal case. "He used to come over on Saturday mornings for coffee. He'd smoke his pipe, and I'd smoke my cigar, and we'd talk. Then his wife turned Mormon. Well, the coffee went first. Then the pipe, then the conversation…. The Mormons have something for you to do twenty-four hours a day. I've taught Soviet intelligence for the Defense Department, and if I didn't know better I'd say Joseph Smith got the LDS system from them. Or maybe the Soviets got theirs from the Mormons."
We passed through the Virgin gorge, high rocky terraces where bighorns sometimes show themselves. Tamarisk bloomed along the river. The country around us was all owned by the BLM, as was most of the broad benches where the Colorado Plateau swept down to the desert. We took an abandoned road off the Interstate and stopped in the dust close to the Nevada state line.
"Watch out," he said, "for buzz-tail."
He meant rattlesnakes. We trudged out onto a point a hundred feet above the river. Potsherds and bits of flaked stone, some transparent, littered the sand. They reminded me of dirty snow piled in Central Park. "Vandals," Malcomson said, puffing away at his Lark in the heat. "It makes me so damn mad." A cottontail cowered in a pot hunter's fresh spade mark, then bolted. "People carry shovels around in their pickups, and wire for sifting what they dig."
Malcomson wasn't interested in acquiring evidence here. The site had already been officially excavated and catalogued and the information entombed in some university. These pot hunters were just recreationists on a Sunday outing.
Malcomson saw himself beleaguered by artifact enthusiasts. "Formerly the BLM district managers in St. George have been either latent pot hunters or treasure hunters. One called me into his office and said he had just bought a metal detector. 'Can I take it on public land?' he asked. 'If I get a buzz, can I go for it?' I said, 'You can get a buzz, but you can't go for it.' He said I'd have to take him to court to enforce that one."
Sticking a shovel into a recorded archaeological site on public land, said Malcomson, violated the law under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). Probably 90 percent of Anasazi artifacts displayed in museums and private exhibits came from public land — mostly BLM. A few piddling arrests had been made. On the Arizona Strip, a BLM enforcement ranger working out of Vegas had arrested a man for pot-hunting, and found that the man's house was full of dynamite. "Posse Comitatus," Malcomson said. "If that agent had moved wrong when he was examining that stuff, he wouldn't be around today."
The BLM considered ARPA to be a prime headache. “I’m always being asked to violate professional standards. Somebody in the agency will come to me and say they want to dig a water catchment system for one of the fair-haired permittees. I tell them it'll take about a month and a half to excavate the site properly, and about nine thousand dollars for carbon dating, ceramic analysis, and publication. They say, 'Oh, no, just do the digging. We'll get the money later for the rest.' "
On the way back to St. George he showed me a golf course built on Anasazi grave sites. When the builders had excavated for the foundation for the clubhouse, they had uncovered pots and other artifacts. "The discovery was announced over the radio," Malcomson said, "and half the town came out to collect pots."
Petroglyphs had been chipped into the rock faces above the fairways; they were too big to steal and too difficult to climb up and deface. Passers-by had a view of strange, serpentine squiggles that have yet to be deciphered. The golfers I saw didn't seem interested in this Anasazi conundrum.
We parked and walked up a little draw where the development ended and public land began. Here the rocks bearing petroglyphs were more accessible; a truck had backed in recently to cart off a few for patio embellishment. Neighborhood children had turned a shallow cave into a clubhouse. The eye of a petroglyph gazed down from one wall, at a copy of Penthouse on an overturned fruit crate.
Malcomson flipped through the magazine, clucking at faded color photographs of naked girls. "Good Mormon kids," he said.


  1. Thanks for all the historical background on the Anasazi. I am not surprised by the vandalism and abuse of lands that are protected and how far the resources are supposed to go for management of those lands. My parents maintained a section of the Buckeye Trail in the Cuyahoga National Parks in Ohio for 30 years. Stewardship of the land is something that's handed down from the previous generation. Respecting the land and keeping the habitats for plants and animals is a value that started many years ago. Thanks again for writing stories that keep those values alive.