Road-builders pay for archaeological damage

  Even in "wild and woolly" Catron County, N.M., you still have to pay if you’re caught damaging archaeological sites on public land.

In 1999, a private landowner hired a construction company to clear a dirt road through a national forest to a patch of private land. In the process, the bulldozer plowed through three prehistoric sites containing stone tools and grinding stones that are between 2,000 and 7,000 years old.

In February, an administrative law judge ordered the landowner, Charles Cooksey, and Spears Pipe and Welding, the company he hired to widen and grade the road, to pay $80,000 — the approximate cost of a scientific excavation of the site. The company must also pay to restore the natural vegetation and contour of the land.

Cooksey’s attorney, Linda Burson, calls it a "David and Goliath story," and suspects the government wants to acquire the private land. She says the Forest Service’s initial damage assessment of $300,000 roughly equaled the value of Cooksey’s property. When the agency discovered that Cooksey had sold the land, Burson says, the damage assessment dropped significantly.

But Forest Service officials say they never appraised the property, and that fines are based on the guidelines of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. The act, which applies to federal and tribal lands, can bring stiff fines and even prison time to people who destroy archaeological sites.