A Utah rancher’s secret was a gift to us

  Trying to keep a secret is almost impossible these days, but rancher Waldo Wilcox kept a good one for half a century.

Last month, when his secret was finally revealed, it became the second biggest global, online news story of the day. Here’s what it was: Since 1951, Wilcox has protected one of the most remarkable archaeological treasures ever found in the American Southwest. He protected this treasure simply by not telling anyone about it.

As Wilcox put it succinctly, "The less people who know about this, the better."

He’d known for decades about these prehistoric Native American villages, strung along 12 miles of a mountain creek deep in the rugged Book Cliffs of southern Utah. They’d remained untouched and virtually unseen for almost 1,000 years by anyone but Wilcox, his close friends and family.

The ancient villages were occupied for over 30 centuries by the Fremont Indians until they were suddenly abandoned almost a millennium ago. Since then, only the wind and the rain have touched the thousands of artifacts left behind. Until now.

Wilcox, worried that the villages might be vandalized and destroyed when he was no longer around to protect them, decided to sell his secret treasure to people who would care for them. He was paid $2.5 million and has retired to Green River, Utah, after ownership of the 4,200 acres was transferred to the state and federal government.

This was announced on June 30, when state archaeologists shuttled news organizations to the remote site for what turned into a media circus. Watching the news coverage that evening on Salt Lake City television, Waldo Wilcox looked bewildered. You could almost see him thinking: "What have I done?"

It’s hard to blame him for worrying, although it’s not clear what other options he had. Then, this summer, a Salt Lake public radio station reported that the sites had been vandalized by some of the media who had traveled there to report their existence. Is this surprising?

In an age where everyone feels they have a right to experience — firsthand — every secret treasure our shrinking planet conceals, what should we expect? Guided tours? A canyoneering-archaeological adventure trip? Will local chambers of commerce demand faster access to grow their tourism economies? Will the government need to construct a 30-mile-in-circumference cyclone fence to keep the human predator population out?

I don’t limit my fears to gravediggers and poachers; every eco-tourist who wants to say he or she "did Waldo’s artifacts" will bear part of the responsibility for their eventual degradation.

The idea of protecting special places by keeping them a secret is stirring debate even among avowed environmentalists. Steve Allen, a guidebook writer who is a canyoneering tour operator and sometime spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, believes that the more people who visit wilderness areas, the better. In 2002, the Salt Lake Tribune reported Allen’s firm belief that wilderness must be seen to be protected.

"We need more people out there, not less," Allen said. "Right now, the wilderness lands of southern Utah are in flux... we need as many wilderness supporters as we can get."

But there are growing concerns that too many people — no matter how well-intentioned — run the risk of loving natural treasures to death. Allen has a solution of sorts: "If places get too crowded, we can take appropriate steps (to limit access)... There are 10 canyons on the tick list. There are 1,000 other canyons."

The idea that, as one canyon gets trampled by non-motorized recreational overuse, we can just move to the next one, is troubling at best. But others will insist that keeping a place secret is an act of selfishness and arrogance, and that anonymity ultimately leads to the demise of an unprotected place.

I am convinced that for unselfish reasons rancher Waldo Wilcox protected this priceless treasure for half a century. Those who argue that he did it for the money need to remember that he sold his land for less than $600 an acre — not exactly ranchette prices. Just consider how many government bureaucrats, at how great an expense, and with what degree of success, will be required to perform the job he did alone and unpaid, and without health insurance and worker’s compensation.

We should all take comfort that the Book Cliff sites exist, more or less intact. But I say, let them be forgotten once again; let’s leave this deserted place to the wind and to the elements. Do it for the ancient Fremont people, and do it for Waldo Wilcox.

Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the curmudgeonly editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr, based in Moab, Utah.