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Know the West

The West is hard at work, destroying its past


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Who speaks for the Colorado Plateau?

The Colorado Plateau is internationally famous for its canyons and spectacular natural beauty, but it also contains the largest concentration of prehistoric ruins, rock art and artifacts in the world.

Those traces of its past are being lost, looted and vandalized at an alarming rate. That is the conclusion of Grand Canyon Trust staffer Rick Moore, who spent a year researching the state of cultural resources on the Plateau. He found law enforcement so ineffective that more than 22,000 sites have been looted. Despite clear legal mandates, the first felony conviction wasn't obtained until 1992.

Documented cases include boaters on Lake Powell who ripped the roof beams out of a small ruin tucked into a sandstone alcove, then used the beams for firewood; vandals who sprayed names over ancient Hopi clan petroglyphs along the Salt Trail; looters at a small pueblo on state land who used an Arizona sign explaining the penalties for damaging archaeological resources as their shovel; and a student on a college field trip who dug up a human skull from an Anasazi burial, then, with the professor's knowledge, took the skull back to campus. Acting on a tip from an outraged classmate, federal agents recovered the skull and successfully prosecuted the college, the professor and the student.

The region's heritage is threatened also by mining, grazing, dam and road construction, and by an enormous increase in the visitors to archaeological sites, Moore says.

The Bureau of Land Management reported 2,185 properties eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, but not one has been registered, Moore says, due to lack of time and money.

Similarly, although the Park Service estimates it has 15.5 million uncatalogued artifacts, it has never budgeted the $20 million it would take to catalog and curate them. Moore believes the agencies on the Plateau are running out of time: In 1992, more than 30 million visited the Plateau's national parks - up from 15 million in 1980. He writes that the Southwest faces the same situation encountered in China and England, where the Ming tombs and Stonehenge have had to be closed to protect them.

The Trust's report, Preserving Traces of the Past: Protecting the Colorado Plateau's Archaeological Heritage, concludes that federal agencies have the laws to protect cultural resources but lack the mandate and the money to enforce them.

In southern Utah, for example, one archaeologist has responsibility for 2 million acres. Vandals who hacked up a kachina panel on the San Juan River could have been arrested and prosecuted, believes archaeologist Dale Davidson of the Monticello office. They were not. With only six BLM agents working throughout the state to deal with law-breakers of every stripe, none could spare the time to press the case in coordination with the FBI.

A copy of the 150-page report is available from the Grand Canyon Trust, P.O. Box 30848, Flagstaff, AZ 86003-9962. Include $5 for mailing costs.