It was Sunday afternoon in southern Arizona, just after a big Christmas dinner. The comment was made that someone knew a good place to go arrowhead and pottery-shard hunting on some BLM-controlled land. After wandering around, we found a few pretty neat-looking points. It was fun being out “exploring,” whether we found anything or not. These days, that opportunity to explore on the public lands of the states has pretty much ended. Roads and access are being closed to the general public on the states’ lands that are controlled by the federal government. Economic development, recreation and resource use and protection are being stymied by numerous laws and regulations, one of which is the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), enacted in 1979, which was intended to strengthen protection for the 1906 Antiquities Act. This Act and the rules and regulations promulgated under it have delayed and/or significantly raised the cost of any resource improvement and protection action while creating another large federal empire.
I recall when I was still in resource management, shortly after ARPA was enacted, that we were going to do some forest reforestation projects. That should be a good thing, right? Well, the newly empowered archaeologists said no way without paying for a survey to ensure no damage will be done to a possible archaeological site.
What? The area had been driven over, grazed over and burned over for the past 100 years, and there was nothing out there to damage. Well, the short story is, we (you the taxpayer) paid $40,000 for a survey that produced two 1½-inch binders of neat maps and descriptions of campfire sites and scattered trash sites, noting and mapping such things as “burned tennis shoe,” “rusty tin can,” etc., and an occasional finding of an old broken pottery shard. When challenged, the archaeologist laughed and told me ARPA was just an employment act for new college grads. He didn’t like it, as they already have more sites to study than can be done, and these federal “must do” surveys reduce and degrade his work opportunities as a studied experienced archaeologist.
Now, before you get your knickers in a twist, I’m not suggesting we should plow up Mesa Verde or Hovenweep. Perish the thought. I enjoy old history as much as or more than the average guy. But it does seem to me things have gotten way out of reason. They speak of our “archaeological resources,” apparently not realizing that a resource is something to be “used” for our advantage, not to prevent progress. Also, they speak of the “value” of the resource. What is value and to whom? We had opened a used book store and got educated real quickly on value. People would come in and want us to buy their “old” book that they knew was real valuable. They were so disappointed to learn that “old” does not impart value, but rather that it is scarcity of the item and number of the buyers that establishes the value. A thousand of the same thing and only three people wanting it really devalues it to nothing.
Mesa Verde Park has over 4,700 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings that they know about. How long and how many people will it take to garner the archaeological information? So how valuable and important is the possibility of a new lithic scatter, small pile of rocks or trash dump, out in the farm and ranch land, to cause it to hold up or stop road improvement, recreation development, farm improvement, etc.?
The Bears Ears area is an interesting subject in this discussion. Very few people had ever heard of it until some personal interest groups promoted it as a potential national monument to “protect” it. Now the entire nation knows about it, and what is there to be supposedly “protected”? That is like putting up a “do not touch, wet paint” sign. They want to advertise for more people to come to an area that they want to keep people out of. What am I missing?
But then you have to remember the old adage of “follow the money”! The behind-the-scenes environmental corporations make their tax-exempt money from inciting public emotions over faux environmental issues. This is a perfect example, since if they were truly concerned with protection of the natural resources and archaeological items, they would have kept their mouth shut and talked quietly with the state and county about how to better manage the area. Instead, they want the inept federal government to spend more tax money that it doesn’t have, to deny access to most of the public that pay the taxes.
Archaeological sites have been a tourist draw for quite some time and are an opportunity to learn from history, although there is not much evidence that we have ever learned much from history, we just seem to repeat it. I have wondered what future archaeologists will think when they dig into the Montezuma Valley. Will they wonder what this people (us) did besides preserve past failed civilizations at our own expense? We will have studied what the failed civilizations did, but could not do better as it might cover or ruin the failed past. Continually paying to find ways to not develop, improve and protect our resources and economy is killing us. How many “sites” do we need? The 1979 ARPA needs to be drastically re-evaluated and greatly modified.
Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.