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”

    COURTESY LYNELL SCHALK
  • Schalk in her days with the Bureau of Land Management

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

    COURTESY LYNELL SCHALK AND GREAT OLD BROADS FOR WILDERNESS
  • A cliff dwelling in San Juan County threatened because of increased access by off-roaders

    COURTESY LYNELL SCHALK AND GREAT OLD BROADS FOR WILDERNESS
 

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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.

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