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.
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.
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
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
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
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.