Blanding • Rising between Montezuma and Recapture canyons east of the southern Utah town of Blanding, Alkali Ridge once teemed with Native Americans who thrived for centuries. They cultivated squash and maize, hunted wild game and decorated rock faces with prehistoric versions of social media posts that resonate across the ages.

Before their mysterious decline, they erected large settlements housing hundreds of people in stone along the long mesa top where one can look across the canyon country to Bears Ears Buttes and Cedar Mesa to the west and Sleeping Ute Mountain to the east.

Vestiges of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization remain embedded in a network of canyons and mesas around Alkali Ridge, offering thousand-year old clues to how the Anasazi and their predecessors survived on agriculture in the arid, rugged landscape, then vanished in the 13th century.

But that ancient heritage could now be at risk as the Bureau of Land Management leases the public lands in question for oil and gas development, over the objections of historic preservationists and wilderness advocates. Marking a major departure from a cautious strategy that guided public land use during the Obama years, the Trump administration is paving the way for drilling.

“To me, this a cultural landscape,” Josh Ewing, of the Bluff-based stewardship group Friends of Cedar Mesa, said as he strode through key prehistoric sites on Alkali Ridge last month.

Ewing’s group and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are protesting 11 of the 21 federal leases sold last month on the ridge and surrounding canyons. The BLM will issue the leases once it resolves the protests.

The area had previously been under study for a “master leasing plan” that would have balanced energy uses with other resources. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, however, scrapped several such leasing plans proposed for San Juan County and other places in Utah where oil and gas deposits lay beneath lands also valued for their scenery, archaeology, recreation or proximity to national parks.

That move was to advance President Donald Trump’s agenda for “American energy dominance,” but critics say it could wind up sacrificing national treasures without doing much for boosting energy production.

‘Layers’ of protection

The archaeologically rich lands being leased are well to the east of the Bears Ears National Monument’s original boundaries, but some advocates fear acreage around Bluff and Cedar Mesa could also be up for lease soon after Trump’s order reducing that monument by 85 percent.

Parcels of public lands along the monument’s northern periphery at Hatch Point already are being leased, but industry representatives say current laws are sufficient to protect sites that could be impacted by development.

“There are multiple layers of laws and regulations in addition to the lease stipulations to ensure companies survey cultural resources and protect them,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based trade association. She said the energy industry has done much to document cultural sites to the benefit of Western archaeology, particularly in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon.

“They have to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act and several other laws that require certain things happen if cultural resources are found,” Sgamma said. “Mostly what they do is avoid those areas.”

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, explores an alcove in Jenny Canyon, a tributary of Recapture Canyon east of Blanding, where Anasazi cliff dwellings like this one remain hidden in the canyon walls. The Bureau of Land Management has issued numerous new oil and gas leases in an area that is blanketed with artifacts — over the objections of historic preservation groups that fear the BLM lacks sufficient information about thousands of cultural sites to ensure their protection.

On average, the Alkali Ridge parcels each has 50 known sites, and one has 200, according to Ewing’s protest. But many of the sites do not appear in the BLM’s official database, and preservationists complain there is little the agency can do to ensure the resources won’t get damaged by energy development.

“A large site like this has immense value for understanding our past,” Ewing said while surveying a former village on Alkali Ridge. “This would have decades of research potential to understand the past and tell us who was trading with whom and what they were eating and where were they traveling from and what kind of ceremonies they were doing.”

Federal officials contend the BLM leases carry safeguards sufficient to protect cultural resources as industry seeks drilling permits. Both the Utah State Historic Preservation Office and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation have sided with the BLM’s finding that leasing would not result in “adverse impacts” to historic properties.

“Lease sales potentially commit the area to development, but due to the nature of the lease, the BLM retains the opportunity to locate any development away from specific historic properties,” Advisory Council official Reid Nelson wrote in a March 7 opinion.

But conservationists say the protections are either voluntary or too laden with loopholes to fully protect artifacts. The rules also fail to account for important spatial relationships between sites that could be disrupted as new roads, pipelines and well pads go in, according to Ewing.

“I trust the BLM would not drill right in this site,” he said, “but they could drill close enough to very much change the setting and impact associated sites, smaller sites that might be subtle above the ground could be destroyed by a bulldozer on the way to a drill pad.”

The BLM recognizes the importance of the cultural resources under its care, according to Nate Thomas, the agency’s lead archaeologist for Utah.

“BLM will conduct complete on-the-ground, intensive cultural resource surveys to identify cultural resources, including those resources not previously identified,” he said. “Every parcel leased includes a Cultural Resource Protection Stipulation which states that the BLM may require modification to proposals, or not approve any activity, to protect these resources if conflicts cannot be mitigated and eliminated.”

Mystery bidders

Meanwhile, three obscure companies that appear to have no history in energy development have spent around $1 million amassing 29 federal and state oil and gas leases in the area at recent BLM auctions. Documents indicate the companies are associated with a Utah businessman named Zachary Westphal.

At the BLM’s March 20 auction, Westphal entered winning bids for drilling rights on 19 of the 21 parcels in the Alkali Ridge area on behalf of Ayers Energy LLC, which BLM records indicate is registered to bid by someone named Jeremy Westphal with addresses in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Bedford, Texas.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anasazi cliff dwellings remain hidden in the walls of Jenny Canyon, a tributary of Utah’s Recapture Canyon east of Blanding. The Bureau of Land Management has issued numerous new oil and gas leases in an area that is blanketed with artifacts — over the objections of historic preservation groups that fear the BLM lacks sufficient information about thousands of cultural sites to ensure their protection.

Ayers’ failure to secure two leases was not from a lack of trying. The company got into bidding duels that saw the prices exceed a whopping $90 an acre before Westhphal bowed out.

According to Ewing, the two parcels had previously been developed and still have industrial infrastructure on them.

A few months ago, two companies tied to Zachary Westphal with no apparent link to oil and gas — E-Education and StocksToTrade.com — had purchased leases on 10 state-managed public lands in Utah. Those leases, totaling about 6,500 acres that are interspersed between the new federal leases, cost $225,000, according to records maintained by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA.

Attempts by The Salt Lake Tribune to reach Jeremy and Zachary Westphal have not been successful.

It is possible they are acquiring the leases for a third party, but their willingness to drop $1 million on bonus bids, along with at least $50,000 in annual rents, indicates at least someone sees drilling potential in an area that has mostly been an oil bust until now.

‘National treasure’

Preservationists realize they cannot stop a tide of development if new technologies such as horizontal drilling and fracking can tap the minerals, even though the region contains North America’s densest concentrations of artifacts.

“It is impractical to have a huge archaeology preserve stretching all the way from Mesa Verde to Bears Ears,” Ewing said, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a landscape-level view of planning and say some areas are too special to drill, some areas should be preserved in their natural state to preserve this history.”

“We can be reasonable about it,” he said, “but we can’t do it one well pad, one lease at a time.”

A 2013 report commissioned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation characterizes Montezuma Canyon’s cultural resources as “a national treasure” filled with archaeological sites dating back 3,500 years.

“The sites range from small artifact scatters to spectacular rock art sites and notable villages, including one of the largest prehistoric villages in Utah,” the reports said, noting that a study of some of the sites could offer insights into ancient population shifts, village formation, farming methods and other archaeological questions.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anasazi cliff dwellings remain hidden in the walls of Jenny Canyon, a tributary of Utah’s Recapture Canyon east of Blanding. The Bureau of Land Management has issued numerous new oil and gas leases in an area that is blanketed with artifacts — over the objections of historic preservation groups that fear the BLM lacks sufficient information about thousands of cultural sites to ensure their protection.

Archaeologists believe Alkali Ridge and nearby canyons also hold crucial insights into the evolution of Puebloan society between the ninth and 13th centuries, when the region suddenly depopulated, likely due to conflict over dwindling resources.

The changes are reflected in settlements moving off the highlands and into the canyons, where Indians built masonry dwellings high up cliff faces underneath overhangs. These structures remain intact in Recapture and Jenny canyons, while those on the mesas have largely collapsed.

In Jenny Canyon, Ewing points out how ladders accessing dwellings have worn vertical grooves into the rock from years of use. Dwelling sites have been looted over the years as evidenced by depressions in the sand below the dwellings where thieves dug in search of pots, clothing, art pieces, adornments, weapons, tools and other objects buried with the dead.

The canyons, whose sites hold so much appeal for visitors, will not likely see much drilling because the BLM generally does not allow surface disturbance in riparian areas. Preservationists are more concerned about the sites on the mesas, which are more important to science because they were occupied by more people over longer periods of time.

“A question we have to ask ourselves as a country is which parts of our history are important to use,” Ewing said. “Is it just the ones that take good pictures? Or are there parts or our history that might look ‘dilapidated’ that are also important?”