Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Cultural Resources and Energy Development: What would Saint Theodore Do? 

12-09-2015 17:35

If there were a patron saint of archeologists, I suspect it would be Saint Theodore, as in Roosevelt, the bull-headed conservative who during his White House tenure from 1901 to1908 redefined the public’s perception of conservation to actually mean conserving resources on public lands. In many respects, the now-forgotten legacy of the Roosevelt doctrine is that conservative was once synonymous with conservation in that public lands and the resources found on them—including the archeological ones— were treasures owned by all Americans.

It was, after all, Roosevelt who pushed through Congress the Antiquities Act of 1906—a sublimely simple law with two landmark components that would forever change how the nation viewed those remnants of our collective past. First, the president was given broad executive powers to protect through national monument designation “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States.” And second, the law was the nation’s first to make it a criminal offense to “appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity” on lands owned or controlled by the federal government.

So when another conservative president with a particular affinity for Theodore Roosevelt ordered federal agencies in 2003 to advance the protection and enhancement of historic properties on public lands “in a manner that promotes the long-term preservation and use of those properties as Federal assets,” I was momentarily (and naively) giddy with the idea that a conservative president would and could again become synonymous with one endorsing conservation, and that politicos of all stripes would embrace the preservation of irreplaceable historic resources as a national priority. I say momentarily because within two years the hope and optimism inspired by Executive Order 13287 had been overwhelmed by the shock and awe of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

It wasn’t so much that the Energy Policy Act repealed Executive Order 13287. Rather it created a prevailing climate among federal bureaucrats wherein energy development (or as some prefer, energy independence) has emerged as a national priority co-equal with and in many respects related to the war on terror. Instead of a balanced approach to federal land management that promoted multiple uses of public lands, a single use of public lands—energy development—has assumed preeminence, with all other uses— outdoor recreation, wildlife protection, scenic values, history, archeology—largely obscured by the overriding energy priority.

At an unprecedented rate, federal agencies have expedited energy development on public lands, targeting vast regions of the American West where oil, gas, and coal had remained untouched for a variety of reasons— from the unproven and as-yetundeveloped technologies needed to extract oil from tar sands and oil shale to the economic realities of extracting hydrocarbons in the stupendously rugged high plateaus and high plains of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming. These were problems, it turns out, that could be overcome with just the right combination of technological ingenuity, government subsidies, and a streamlined bureaucracy.

How is this relevant to the protection of archeological and historic resources? It just so happens that the Western lands rich in hydrocarbons are also the same places that are richest in unexplored and even undiscovered archeological resources, including the remains of ancient dwellings and granaries tucked precariously on cliff ledges, defensive retreats perched high on pinnacles and mesa tops, pithouses and petroglyphs and pictographs, and on and on. These are also the lands that federal agencies—primarily the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—know the least about. As succinctly articulated in Cultural Resources on the Bureau of Land Management Public Lands: An Assessment and Needs Analysis, a study conducted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2006, only about 6 percent of BLM lands have ever been inventoried or surveyed for cultural resources.

Indeed, the study identified what archeologists have long known and long preached to no avail: that federal agencies have no idea as to the nature, density, and distribution of archeological sites on the lands they manage; that management decisions (e.g., where to develop) are being made without this baseline data; that current compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act has resulted in a hodgepodge of scattered, small-scale surveys that contribute little to an understanding of prehistoric lifeways and ultimately fail to consider indirect and cumulative adverse effects; and that federal budget priorities are focused on energy extraction at the expense of cultural resource monitoring, education, or protection. Perhaps most disturbing is that there is little or no federal priority to proactively identify those cultural resources most at risk from development on public lands and to nominate historic properties to the National Register.

Nine Mile Canyon

Nowhere is the myopia of federal land policy more on public display than in Nine Mile canyon in east-central Utah, a region internationally renowned as a canvas for tens of thousands of rock art images, some believed to date to hunters and gatherers as early as 5000 BC, most to early farmers a thousand years ago or so, and yet others to only a century or two ago when ancestors of the modern Ute Indians etched, pecked, and incised the story of their acculturation by Euroamericans through the depiction of horses, trains, and other accoutrements of the foreign immigration that was displacing them. Thecanyon is widely touted as the largest aboriginal rock art district in North America.

But Nine Mile Canyon is also the primary access route for natural gas development on the adjacent West Tavaputs Plateau, which has transformed what was once a narrow dirt road traveled by ranchers and tourists into a major thoroughfare—albeit still a dirt one—wide enough for semi-trailer trucks to pass each other in opposite directions. Canyon residents and preservation advocates protested this transformation, and in 2004 the National Trust even named Nine Mile Canyon to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. But the development of natural gas reserves moved forward amid assurances from the BLM that measures were in place to ensure the rock art would not be impacted.

Today there are about 120 natural gas wells on the plateau above Nine Mile Canyon and work is underway on about 50 more—each of which require an entourage of heavy semis and light trucks going back and  forth, often at the rate of 20 to 30 trucks an hour during busy times. Many of the rock art sites closest to the dirt road leading to those wells are now barely visible to the public due to thick coverings of white road dust. The BLM is not disputing that dust suppression efforts have been largely ineffective. But rather than implement measures to protect the rock art (or simply require compliance with stipulations made in 2004 to require dust suppression), the BLM has turned a blind eye to the dust problem, even arguing that studies are inconclusive as to whether the dust is even the problem that activists believe it to be.

In the meantime, heavy industrial traffic mandates constant maintenance on the dirt road —a designated National Scenic Backway— that is also destroying the archeological artifacts that once drew tourists into the canyon. One site with historic signatures affectionately known as “Boot Rock” was bulldozed away and obliterated by road maintenance. In at least two other instances, road maintenance cut into ancient trash middens remarkably rich in artifacts. The BLM put up small metal signs saying not to blade between the signs (that is, using a large road grader with a flat bulldozer-like blade to level the road surface by removing the top layer of the old road base). But that has not stopped the road grading. The site has been bladed at least four times with no ramifications.

When activists complained yet again and one BLM archeologist questioned publicly whether or not the midden was actually an archeological site, the BLM decided to do more testing of the site. When test excavations revealed thousands of artifacts ranging from stone beads to pottery shards, charcoal, and stone tools, the BLM responded by washing its hands of the problem altogether. Without public hearings or public notice, it turned over management responsibility of the road to industry-friendly Carbon County—the same governmental entity that has been actively opposing the nomination of Nine Mile Canyon to the National Register of Historic Places. Only after pressure from activists who raised questions about the legality of the move did Carbon County reluctantly relinquish the right of way back to the BLM.

As the big trucks continue to rumble amid the chorus of activists’ complaints, the BLM has now issued a draft environmental impact statement to allow the expansion of natural gas development on the plateau to more than 800 wells, with an infrastructure extending into the canyon bottom and through some of the canyon’s most famous rock art panels. The BLM’s preferred alternative is to build a large waste-water pumping station with its cacophony of industrial noises in the bottom of Nine Mile Canyon next door the most famous rock art panel in the canyon—the Great Hunt. Coincidentally or not, the pumping station would be located either on or adjacent to farmland owned by Steve Hansen—consistently the most vocal opponent of the natural gas development in the canyon and past chair of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, a group of landowners and citizen activists fighting to preserve the canyon and its archeological treasures. (It was Hansen who nominated the canyon as an endangered place.)

Other Battles

The effort by the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition and others to save the nationally significant archeological resources of Nine Mile Canyon is but one in a series of ongoing battles in which conservationists have joined with archeologists to protect the vanishing traces of our collective past. In the archeologically rich Vermillion Basin, the Colorado Wilderness Network has highlighted the world-class rock art there as reason enough to save the area from an onslaught of hydrocarbon development (and you can’t help but admire their slogan “one in a Vermillion”). The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is fighting tooth and nail to protect cultural resources in the remote White River drainage in northeastern Utah and in the San Rafael Swell. The Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance is working to protect the unique ancient landscapes of Desolation Canyon, a National Historic Landmark in eastern Utah that now finds itself in the crosshairs of natural gas development. And in southwestern Colorado, the National Trust has stood above all others in the campaign to ensure that energy development in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument does not destroy the remarkable cultural values that prompted the monument designation in the first place.

An inescapable byproduct of the Energy Policy Act and the consequent impacts it has had on public lands has been the emergence of an unprecedented alliance between environmentalists, historic preservationists, and archeologists, all working toward a common goal of preservation of cultural resources (despite differences they might have over objectives and tactics). National Trust President Richard Moe has been at the forefront of this emerging alliance, recognizing and embracing archeological sites not only as a critical component of the nation’s cultural heritage but also as an integral part of a national landscape where humans have had an undeniable presence for the past 10,000 years. Moe and his able field commanders have exhibited a passion for archeology that has been contagious, resulting in collaborative partnerships across the West.

Off Roaders, “Free Riders,” and other threats

Archeological treasures are most abundant and most evident in the West, where the combination of arid climates and the sheer isolation of the public lands have resulted in a remarkable state of preservation. Structures built a thousand years ago are still intact; tools and household items of wood, bone, leather, and fiber are buried in the dry deposits; even food remnants are still in the ancient pantries that archeologists call granaries. Most of these sites remain undocumented. Of the 261 million acres of BLM lands in 11 Western states, only 17 million acres have been surveyed. Archeologists have documented roughly 263,000 archeological sites on these 17 million acres. Although the statistical validity of projecting totals can be legitimately questioned, it is entirely plausible that there are more than 4 million archeological sites on BLM lands, and that 94 percent of them have never been documented.

In many cases undocumented sites are already well known to local residents, off highway vehicle enthusiasts, backpackers, outdoor recreationists and, unfortunately, vandals and looters in search of Pre-Columbian artifacts. Many public lands are crisscrossed by a spaghetti bowl of ephemeral trails, thousands of miles them.  Most of these trails are remnants of mining activities and livestock operations and, yes, oil and gas development in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. A series of studies by the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance (CPAA) have documented a direct relationship between the existence of these trails and the prevalence of vandalism and looting. Wherever you have road access, you have vandalism. Wherever there are no roads—and huge chunks of the West are wild enough that no roads yet mar their character—there is little or no vandalism.

In a nutshell, vandals and looters are lazy creeps who rarely venture far from their cars as they defile our national heritage for some selfish need to acquire antiquities for sale or personal gratification. And they are using vehicles to arrive at archeological sites and to carry the equipment needed to accomplish their nefarious deeds. Today’s off-road vehicles—both the four-wheeled and two wheeled varieties—also have the technological capacity to penetrate farther and farther into the backcountry, enhancing the probability that as-yet-undiscovered archeological sites once protected by their isolation will be damaged, looted, and destroyed. For a minority, known in the trade as “free riders,” the challenge is to breach the backcountry where there are no trails, no federal officers to enforce travel restrictions, and no one to report illegal behavior. A recent CPAA study in Tenmile Canyon near Moab, Utah, found that about 25 percent of the archeological sites had vehicle tracks running through the middle of the sites.

Without a BLM commitment to enforcement of existing rules (and there simply are not enough BLM law enforcement officers to patrol even a tiny fraction of public lands), there is not a whole lot that can be done about the free riders who openly disdain and defy rules and regulations. But the BLM can and must foster a better public lands ethic among the vast majority of ethical off-road vehicle users, encouraging them to stay on the trails and to report abuse. And one component has to be outreach efforts that educate users as to the sensitive nature of cultural resources. And if there are areas where the cultural resources are too sensitive, too vulnerable, or too abundant, the BLM must have the political backbone to step forward and close these areas in order to protect them.

The BLM readily acknowledges that registrations for off road vehicles (ORV) have grown exponentially in the past several years, and with that growth has come increased public demand for trails and increased political pressure, particularly from county officials who see backcountry vehicles as part of their recreation economies. Recent draft resource management plans (RMPs) that will dictate how much of western Colorado and all of eastern Utah will be managed over the next two decades have put forth travel plans that call for tens of thousands of miles of ORV trails. The BLM has no plans to survey along these routes prior to designating them as routes (since the trails are already there, the BLM maintains Section 106 is not required), even though the agency acknowledges that archeological sites along those routes could be damaged or destroyed.

Responsibility of the BLM

Whether or not the BLM is required by law or regulation to survey along these routes is a legal question better suited for more nimble minds than mine. But there certainly is a moral obligation on the part of any federal agency that recognizes that cultural resources under its jurisdiction or control are being damaged and that activities it seeks to authorize could and probably will accelerate that damage.

The flip side of one my favorite truisms to “speak only what you know” is that when you speak of that which you know little about it doesn’t take long for folks to smell the baloney. Such is the case when we have federal agencies claiming to have carefully, thoughtfully, and thoroughly considered ramifications of their decisions on the cultural resources that will be impacted by their decisions. But the BLM doesn’t have any idea what those resources are on 94 percent of the lands it manages. How can it manage resources it does not even know are there?

It can’t.

These criticisms of current land management practices are not directed at responsible hydrocarbon extraction, but at a process that has sacrificed other values on the altar of energy policy. There are many companies out there developing their legitimate leases in responsible ways that embody the spirit of conservation. There are other companies out there that do not. The real risk to cultural resources on public lands comes not from companies but from a federal policy of unbridled haste too often fueled by a perception that environmental reviews are unnecessary delays, that avoidance of cultural resources is simply too costly or impractical, and that public participation in such policy decisions is an annoyance or hindrance to national energy priorities. Energy development is carrying the “big stick” in public lands policy these days. But I can’t help but be reminded of a lesser known Roosevelt quote, the one that goes “No man is justified in doing evil on the ground of expedience.”

Publication Date: Summer 2008

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Author(s):Jerry D. Spangler