Driven to fight

A retired BLM special agent finds herself battling the very agency she once worked for

  • Lynell Schalk stands by an archaeological site marred with off-road vehicle tracks despite the closed sign reading, “Please don’t erase the signs of America’s past”

  • Schalk in her days with the Bureau of Land Management

  • An off-road vehicle trail, above, runs over the crumbling walls and midden of an archaeological site at Recapture Wash

  • A cliff dwelling in San Juan County threatened because of increased access by off-roaders


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.”

Mar 19, 2007 11:24 AM

President Carter was actually a pretty bright guy.  High IQ and great technical smarts.  But smart enough to invent a time machine so he could go back and issue an executive order before he became president?  I don't know about that.

Mar 22, 2007 04:17 PM

Poor Lynell Schalk, I share her frustration. In 1979 I was a seasonal Grand Gulch ranger when Turkey Pen Ruin was being systematically looted. At the time, nobody knew who was doing it, and my repeated reports to the BLM Monticello office went unheeded, even after I pulled a hidden shovel out of the ruin's granary and dumped it on the BLM conference room table. The BLM archaeologist in Moab did take it, however, saying it would be good in his vehicle should it get stuck. So much for the fingerprints that I'd carefully attempted to preserve.

I didn't know it at the time, but an archaeologist working at the Dolores Reservoir Project under Dr. Bill Lipe, then a professsor at Washington State University, had also visited the site. He reported this vandalism to Dr. Lipe, who in turn reported it to his friend, the late Senator Henry Jackson. There was a formal Congressional inquiry, resulting in a real investigation and two arrests -- the first made under ARPA.

Of course, everybody at BLM Monticello knew I was myself heading off to graduate school at Washington State University that autumn to study under Dr. Lipe, and naturally assumed I spilled the beans. In truth, I never mentioned it to the guy. Still, I took full blame and the brunt of BLM's anger. Other BLM rangers later told me the problem from upper management's point of view was not the looting, but rather that their inaction was exposed and made into a public embarassment. Nearly 30 years later, nothing's changed.

 -- Bill Haase, Gales Ferry, Connecticut.
Mar 28, 2007 08:17 PM

What we have is a Department of Inferior and a Department of CON-Aggravation. Under those are the Bureau of Land Mismanagement and the Forestry Circus. Also Wildlife Extermination Service.          The directive for legitimizing outlaw trail systems is West wide and pervasive.                Unfortunately too many of the few law enforcement personell are not "Rangers"; they are FBI Academy washouts and other "Criminal Law" misfits. The ROT is from the top down & from the bottom up. Every National Forest and BLM Region is rubberstamping the oil and gas industrial land sacrifice and rampant OUTLAW vehicle use.       I personally am considering shooting out tires and cutting treads since the many instances of abuse and lawbreaking I have reported and documented have not been investigated or punished - instead broken promises are the norm.               

Jul 19, 2007 03:42 PM

Your's is an interesting article and I applaud Ms. Schalk for her obviously tireless efforts.  I would, however, offer a couple of observations.

1. It would seem not to be possible to perpetually protect every last archaeological site, and they are ever increasing in number (ARPA cites 100 years as the qualifying age), that exist on all public lands of the U.S., without placing quite draconian restrictions on the movement of the public.

2. Your article mentions "preservation" twice.  I may be out of touch with the BLM's current mandates, but I think that, in the past, they were a "conservation" and "multiple use" agency.

3. Although probably not realistic for any number of reasons, perhaps the National Park Service, a true "Preservation" agency, should be handed the responsibility for preserving (no change over time) the millions of archaeological sites out there.  Personally, I wouldn't like to start seeing those little brown and white signs everywhere telling me what not to do.

Overall, I suppose that I see the BLM's purpose and ARPA as being in substantial conflict, with little hope for an unassisted resolution, unless certain very limited areas of the public lands are declared off-limits to most or all visitation without a permit for fee.  But, we already have primitive areas, wilderness areas, and other specially designated lands - maybe we just need more and more of them.  Again, not realistic.

I have worked for the BLM and the NPS in numerous locations, including Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, including time in the Grand Gulch, Black Canyon, and most of the Canyonlands.  I think that I have seen the best and the worst both agencies can do, and both should be monitored continuously, but the world can't be shut out forever.

Aug 15, 2007 03:28 PM

I worked at the Monticello Field Office for over a year and everyone I knew there worked very hard and always did the right thing. They ALWAYS honored input from the public and tried very hard to address all issues. But the Monticello F.O. and the BLM in general have very limited budgets. It is not the job of a range tech or an archeologist to sit in the office and answer letters from mal-contents that have a chip on their shoulder. Their job is to be in the field protecting and looking after the land, but they can't when groups like SUWA, great old broads, canyonlands defenders, send 10s of 1000s of letter that each and everyone has to be read and address. I ask Lynell how is that protecting those potshards you found. It certainly isn't saving any trees.

If these people REALLY want to change how the land is protected and governed they need to follow the money. Write your congressman, petition them and congress to give the BLM, Forest Service, and every other Bureau the means and the money to really protect the land. Give the agencies the means and funds to do what is needed. They are good people in those agency and if they had the means they will do what you ask of them.

Jun 24, 2008 01:13 PM

100% agree no money= less resource protection no matter how hard individuals work. The BLM staff at the monticello office work extremly hard and are passionate about there work. Increades funding for highly trained rangers would be ideal but it is not going to happen so we must look elsewhere. I believe a better grass roots volunteer program would be extremely effective in terms of increasing cultural resource protection and stretching the budget. Many volunteers are highly educated and eager college students looking to make an impact in preserving Americas natural resources, look at the success of the SCA program and conservation corps. Under close leadership and carefully screened volunteers, the BLM can better preserve historical resources on a diminishing budget. Spending a little money to market volunteer and internship stewardships throughout the country would pay high dividends for protecting historical resources. It is your opinion to put down an agency but look at their budget  before making critical complaints.