t's been a busy law enforcement year for the public lands in Utah.
In December 2008, college student Tim De Christopher was arrested in Salt Lake City for a spontaneous expression of his concern for the health of the public lands, indeed, of the whole planet, when he walked into a Bureau of Land Management gas and oil lease auction and bid up the prices of numerous parcels, actually placing winning bids on 22,000 acres. Charged with one count of fraud, he will be tried later this year, and faces a possible 10 years in prison.
The public reaction was mixed, with the environmental community extolling the virtues of Tim's selfless heroism, while some from the petroleum industry, and not a few politicos, called for his head on a platter.
Meanwhile, last week in San Juan County, Utah, which borders Colorado, the BLM, the FBI and tribal governments executed the largest sting in U.S. history over the theft and sale of ancient artifacts, nabbing members of some of the most respected southern Utah families for possession and attempted sale of artifacts taken from the public and tribal lands - in other words, grave robbing. Local reaction was swift, and predictable. San Juan County is furious, and feeling victimized.
A long-standing traditional pastime in southern Utah, digging up artifacts in and around archaeological sites was, and apparently still is, a family affair. On weekends, groups would go out on what they called "skeleton picnics," long before it was illegal to do so. They were unconcerned about the damage to the archaeological resource they were destroying, not to mention the disruption of Native American burial sites. In fact, a prevalent view in the area is that what they took was merely "trash and trinkets," although the prices the pieces brought clearly indicated they had a higher market value.
It has become known to federal investigators that ancient artifacts are not only prized by collectors, but have become a source of ready cash for drug users, as well. Author Craig Childs says, "Pulling artifacts from the land without documentation and adding them to private collections is a form of archaeological genocide, erasing the record of a people from a place."
The day after the arrests, James Redd, a respected Blanding physician and one of the suspects, committed suicide. (It should be noted here that in 1996, Redd and his wife, Jeanne, were arrested for the desecration of a corpse on tribal land while digging for artifacts, and ultimately, in a plea bargain, Jeanne "took the fall." Charges against her husband were dropped.)The doctor's suicide left the town of Blanding in an uproar of anger and grief. There was great public outcry over the perceived treatment of the suspects, who were said to be merely pursuing their time-honored family "hobby." Many railed at the "Gestapo" tactics of agents, despite the fact that they used standard operating procedures while conducting the arrests, which is even more understandable considering the drug-related histories of some of the suspects. Some Blanding residents even seem to hold the federal government responsible for Redd's death.
Within the week, Utah's U.S. senators, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, called for a congressional hearing on the conduct of the two-and-a-half year investigation and the June 10 arrests. While this may be simple pandering to the inflamed sentiments in San Juan County, it also smacks of a serious double standard when it comes to law enforcement on federal lands in Utah, which has been a problem there for many years.
Federal land managers have been subject to various forms of coercion and interference from local officials over everything from road and trail designations to grazing management, off-road-vehicle enforcement and recreation permits. The very word "wilderness" - a designation offering the highest degree of protection to remote and fragile landscapes and resources - is loathed, as a form of "locking out the public." Yet greater public access, especially with motorized vehicles, is known to increase the likelihood of looting and archaeological damage.
BLM and Forest Service managers have struggled to find a balance between open access and resource protection. Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, has documented the connection between looting of archaeological sites and off-road vehicle access. He says, "Any time you open up areas for motorized access, you open up areas for mischief. Archaeological sites become more vulnerable from illegal and inappropriate activities associated with ORVs, whether intentional or inadvertent."
Local resentment of "the Feds" has been palpable in most of red rock country, the cultural estrangement continuing or even growing stronger. The current situation may not change that attitude in many of the older generation in San Juan County, but it does send a strong signal that the federal government will stand behind its managers there as they strive to enforce the law of the land.
The natural and cultural resources on Utah's public lands belong to all Americans, not just the local residents, and the protection of those resources seems, thankfully, to be gaining priority status at last. It's no longer "business as usual" in canyon country.
Veronica Egan is executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a nonprofit, public lands organization headquartered in Durango and dedicated to preserving and protecting wilderness and wild lands. Reach her at email@example.com.