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Driven to fight

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

 

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.”

Another pending right of way has pitted Schalk against her former employer. In Recapture Canyon, a drainage chock-full of archaeological sites, illegal trails, complete with bridges and culverts, were built in late 2005. The illicit trails cross nine large archaeological sites, including one dubbed the “Recapture Great House.” Thirty-one sites, including kivas and room blocks, sit along the route; most are Ancestral Puebloan ruins nearly 1,000 years old. Before the trail’s construction, the canyon’s rugged terrain kept vehicles out. Now, off-roaders drive over crumbling walls and large middens.

Schalk stumbled across the trail on a hike last May.

“From my perspective as an investigator,” says Schalk, the trail construction was “a felony threshold crime, not just a misdemeanor” since it appears that the archaeological sites have suffered well over $500 in damage.

Schalk reported the trails to the Monticello field office, requesting that BLM investigate the crime, as required by federal law, and close the area immediately to prevent further damage.

When she failed to receive an adequate response, she dug deeper into the case. A special agent from outside the area had been assigned to the investigation in October 2005, but had never interviewed anyone about the case. By law, potential felony cases are investigated by BLM special agents under the direction of the U.S. attorney’s office; field office managers have no final say in their disposition. But Meyers urged the special agent in an e-mail to “leave the decision making at the field level.” The investigation was closed in January 2006, due to the difficulty of establishing suspects. “If we had been able to prosecute someone for the actions that occurred there, we would have,” says Meyers. “But now the trails exist, and it is a potential use of the public land that should be analyzed, because it’s there.”

 

The Monticello field office is now considering legitimizing the Recapture trails by granting San Juan County a right of way. The agency must first complete an environmental assessment and take public comment, but it has already discussed designation logistics with the county, and Schalk says the issue feels like a done deal.

Some locals are pleased. “I believe public lands need to be managed, not closed,” says county contract worker Bob Turri, a member of the local off-road advocacy group, San Juan Public Entry and Access Rights. He’s excited about the possibility of Recapture becoming county-controlled: “It could be a nationally known trail because of the archaeological sites and the ability to see them so easily.”

This scenario does not sit well with Schalk.

“This (would be) a case of turning over a felony crime scene to the perpetrators,” she says. “It’s just like a game warden catching a poacher in the act and handing out a hunting license on the spot.”

Schalk has other problems with the Monticello field office, including a county-made road that cuts cross-country near Grand Gulch Primitive Area, bladed in fall 2005 after a verbal authorization from Meyers. Federal land-management regulations require environmental assessments — and public comment — before a landscape is disturbed; verbal authorizations are not a recognized procedure. Meyers says that the trail blading did not require the assessment because it followed an existing right of way.

Schalk has also requested that BLM close motorized access to the historic Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, a Mormon pioneer route. Meyers gave verbal permission in February 2005 to the local off-road group to do trail work on the site, without BLM or archaeologist supervision. More than $10,000 in damage to the trail resulted. Meyers says she “learned a very short, sharp lesson” about letting user groups do trail work on historic sites, but she has not closed the route. Her office will draft a management plan for it, she says, perhaps in late 2008.

 

The BLM’s shift from preservation to recreation is tied to several factors. A June 2006 memo to the agency’s Utah field offices discusses the difficulty of protecting resources while managing off-road recreation: There simply aren’t enough rangers out on the ground, designated routes aren’t signed, and once a route is created in most areas, it is considered “existing” and therefore essentially legitimate. Until routes are officially designated — or granted to outside parties, such as counties — no environmental review is required. The BLM hopes to remedy this problem through its route-designation process.

Schalk fears that even with designated routes in place, her crusade is far from over. The BLM’s top priority today is oil and gas leasing. Each year, more money goes to energy development, leaving other programs with a smaller slice of the pie. And the pie is shrinking: Budgets in recent years have stayed at or below 2003 levels while use of BLM lands has risen each year. That means cuts in staff and less money for enforcement.

On a drive to survey another archaeological site damaged by off-roaders, Schalk looks out the window of her truck, briefly studying the uplifted, jagged sandstone mass that is Comb Ridge. Bum knees and a bad back — gifts from a lifetime of hiking and rangering — have left her with a blue disabled tag hanging from her rearview mirror. But she still hikes when she can. She shakes her head.

“There’s a land giveaway going on out there, and the public doesn’t even know about it.” She pauses. “And once you give away the farm, it’s really tough to take it back.”

The author writes from Moab, Utah.