BLUFF, UTAH -- In 1990, Lynell Schalk was working undercover for the Bureau of Land Management, posing as a potential artifact buyer. She got more than she bargained for when a 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound pothunter offered to show her a card trick: He picked up a deck and ripped it in half. “This,” he grinned, “is what I do with people who mess with me.” Schalk asked for the severed deck as a souvenir. A few weeks later, the man was indicted for trafficking in artifacts stolen from federal lands.

Schalk was among the first group of BLM rangers to become agency law enforcement officers, complete with badge and gun. That was in 1978, and she was the only woman in the 13-member group. Now a silver-haired 56-year-old, she has soft brown eyes and a disarming smile. But something in her manner says that she doesn’t cut anyone a break, not even herself.

Schalk, who retired in 2001, spends winters in Bluff, a small hamlet in San Juan County, Utah. During her first season there, Schalk began volunteering as a BLM citizen ranger. She quickly found herself embroiled in a fight. Next to her land sit sand dunes rich in archaeological sites and artifacts. In the BLM’s management plan, these dunes were designated as an “open area,” meaning that off-highway vehicles could drive anywhere.

She contacted the local BLM field office in Monticello, concerned that irreplaceable artifacts were being destroyed, and pulled together a group of local landowners to push for an emergency closure. The agency eventually closed 2.5 square miles of dunes, although the group had requested twice that amount.

Today, Schalk is still fighting to protect public lands, but now her adversary is the very agency that once employed her. And the fight isn’t just about the sand dunes next door, but about the damage the BLM is letting off-roaders do to invaluable archaeological and historic sites in southern Utah.

“I see agency malfeasance here, and I have a problem with that,” says Schalk, looking out her window at the redrock walls that surround Bluff. A small ancient granary is visible from her home. “This is the most archaeologically rich landscape in North America. And the BLM and county are hell-bent on destroying a unique resource.”

 

Schalk took her first position with the BLM in 1974 in Utah’s Grand Gulch Primitive Area, a stunning canyon system sheltering thousands-year-old archaic sites as well as more recent Puebloan structures.

The rangers patrolled every day, by helicopter, horseback or foot. Even before the days of BLM law enforcement training, Grand Gulch rangers made more archaeological cases in the ’70s — including prosecutions and convictions — than all other federal land-management agencies combined.

There were fewer all-terrain vehicles then, but Jeeps and motorcycles were already a problem, exploring old mining roads and traveling off trails. Looters used vehicles to reach — and ransack — remote sites. In 1972, President Nixon issued an executive order, acknowledging the need for off-road vehicles to “be controlled and directed so as to protect the resources of those lands.”

If off-road vehicles are damaging the landscape, wildlife or archaeological sites, the order says, the agency responsible must “immediately close such areas or trails. ...” BLM continues to operate under this directive today.

Other policy shifts during Schalk’s tenure made it easier to protect cultural sites: BLM rangers earned law enforcement status, and the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act made it easier to prosecute looters. Since those days, however, says Schalk, BLM’s philosophy about archaeological protection has changed, particularly in southern Utah, where preservation now takes a backseat to motorized access.

 

Utah’s off-road vehicle registration has more than tripled in the last decade, mirroring a Westwide trend. Meanwhile, under a Bush administration order to encourage local participation in public-land decision-making, the BLM increasingly appeases tourism-hungry counties and off-road advocacy groups by approving motorized access.

Archaeological experts such as Fred Blackburn, a noted historian of the Four Corners area and former BLM Grand Gulch employee, are disturbed by the agency’s lack of commitment to archaeological preservation. Blackburn says he’s watched a number of sites across Utah go “from pristine to devastated” due to motorized access.

But the problem is bigger than off-road weekend warriors, says Monticello Field Office Manager Sandy Meyers: “I believe there is a connection between greater numbers of people visiting the sites and impacts. I don’t think it’s relevant whether those people arrived on foot or used motorized access.”

The BLM plans to rein in motorized use, however. Following an agencywide directive, the Monticello field office must pare down its 600,000 acres of open areas and replace unrestricted cross-country travel with designated routes.

San Juan County doesn’t relish that prospect. Many of the recently approved off-road routes support mega-trail systems — hundreds of miles of interconnected routes that are good marketing tools for rural counties. One such trail system, called Canyon Rims, is in the works in San Juan County. Two years ago, the Monticello field office granted two rights of way to the county as “connector routes” for this system, and several more applications are in the works. County Planner Evan Lowry says the county needs the road network to survive: “You might liken it to the cardiovascular system. It’s what keeps us alive — the access.”