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Know the West

Ancient archaeological secret is revealed

  Over the years, rancher Waldo Wilcox had told very few people about the well-preserved Fremont Indian settlement on his land in eastern Utah’s Range Creek Canyon. The site, which includes a thousand-year-old treasure trove of pottery, arrowheads and cliff dwellings, is one of Utah’s most dramatic archaeological finds.

But in the late 1990s, when Wilcox was nearing retirement, Utah officials who knew about the settlement approached him with an offer to manage the site for its preservation.

In 2001, Congress allocated $2 million of U.S. Department of Interior Land and Water Conservation Fund money to purchase the land for Utah, and the state contributed another $500,000. The Trust for Public Land brokered the deal, and the Bureau of Land Management served as interim owner. After the sale, archaeologists quickly began an inventory for the BLM.

"We’re talking about 5,000 sites in pristine condition," says College of Eastern Utah archaeologist Jerry Spangler. "For an archaeologist, that’s an open book."

The state of Utah, which acquired the almost 4,000-acre property this year, intended to keep the area closed to the public until early 2005, while it developed a land-management plan. But news of the site leaked to the Associated Press this summer, prompting a flurry of media attention, along with fears that looters would raid the area. Several artifacts may have disappeared already, Spangler says, but widespread looting has yet to occur.

Darin Bird, assistant director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, says it’s unlikely the state will open the site as a public exhibit. But the land will be preserved almost as is, under a conservation easement that prohibits development other than pre-existing farming and ranching use.