Day By Day

Friday, April 22, 2005

Archaeologists vs. SUVs -- Who gets to use the land?

Archaeology Magazine has an interesting article on attempts to restrict the use of SUVs and other off-road vehicles on public lands in the West.

The problem seems to be that the public has this quaint idea that public lands should be open for public use. That outrages the archaeologists who want to sequester the land for "scientific" study [which means for their own use]. They raise cries of alarm, but seem be be a bit hazy as to just which aspect of modern civilization most dismays them. You see, a wide variety of people are actually daring to use public lands.
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.

They are particularly angered by all terrain vehicles.
"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.

Oh yeah! Boulder hopping and tree crushing! Awesome!

There is actually some dispute among the preservationists as to which is the greater evil -- SUVs or human beings.

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.

But a 2000 report from the BLM,

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.

Perhaps the greatest peril is people who love archaeology. They flock to areas where artifacts and ruins are to be found. "Some sites are not maliciously damaged," the article notes, "but loved to death. That is the result of too much visitation." So there is an exquisite irony here. Efforts to publicize archaeology result in a flood of visitors that imperil the archaeological enterprise.

Just how much land are we talking about? According to archaeologists it's not just a few sites here and there that need protection.
In San Juan County... there are 26,000 recorded archaeological sites according to Jim Carter, one of two staff archaeologists.... 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.

That's just in one county in one state. Just imagine how much public land would be reserved for "scientific" study and banned to the public if archaeologists and preservationists were to get their way.

And they are determined to have their way. At the urging of activists "[C]ommunities in Utah and across the Southwest have petitioned [the BLM] for emergency closure."

But the public is not taking this lying down. The locals are fighting back against the "damn environmentalists."
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.

Activists have gotten the Federal Government, in the form of the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] to ban vehicles from many public lands, but to no avail:
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.
Way to go guv!

Now let's just stop and think. What valuable information can be gleaned from these lands that would justify a broad prohibition on public use? Very little, I would venture. But archaeologists and preservationists are pushing for it. Why?

I am beginning to suspect that one of the reasons people go into archaeology is that they don't very much like people. Wandering off into remote areas and contemplating people long, long ago is an effective way of distancing yourself from real, living, breathing human beings. The preservationist image of unspoiled ruins [think about that] is a similar distancing mechanism, scouring the land clean of those unsightly human beings. More and more I'm beginning to see these activists as just plain pathetic.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a reporter in New Mexico, I see the tragedy of misused public lands all the time. Lots of people don't realize how damaging their boots, wheels, horses hooves etc can be to ancient sites that belong to Native Americans directly and in directly to all of humanity. I decided to write an e-novel mystery in which the bad guy is an antiquities thief who finally gets caught, hoping a little education will produce the ounce of prevention needed to keep our sites in tact. I am hoping archaeologists will use it to teach people to look and not touch. It's available at or through my web site and is called Snap Me a Future