Federal land managers, especially in the Southwest’s canyon country so steeped in prehistory, exercise caution about what they divulge regarding sensitive cultural sites
They don’t want to release information that could lead treasure hunters to these locales. But they also are expected to conduct business in a transparent way, particularly when they are weighing competing mandates, such as protecting artifacts while making land available for mineral extraction.
A recent incident involving an unredacted 77-page archaeological resources report the Bureau of Land Management posted about southern Utah sites illustrates the agency’s delicate balancing act, pitting artifact protection against the public’s right to know.
As first reported by the online publication Reveal, the report describes about 1,300 known archaeological sites within 43 parcels the agency auctioned last March for oil and gas leases in Grand and San Juan counties. While it did not provide location coordinates for the sites, it did give enough information to make archaeologists and historic preservationists nervous.
The document contained sufficient detail to potentially help looters who know what to look for, said Josh Ewing, executive director of the Bluff-based conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa.
Ewing noticed the document online in February while preparing a formal protest to the lease sale. He alerted the BLM about his concerns. Although it notes the report was not posted by mistake, the agency did swap it out March 5 with a redacted version.
Ewing and others still see the posting as a “mistake” and expressed gratitude the BLM “corrected” it.
“Archaeological sites are always fragile. They are nonrenewable, and oftentimes they are sacred to tribes,” said Bill Doelle, president of Archaeology Southwest. “Caring for the information has to be done with thought and caution.”
Utah’s State Historic Preservation Office doubts the report put any sites in imminent danger, “but it was more specific that we are comfortable with,” said spokesman Josh Loftin. “It wasn’t up there long at all. It’s not findable anymore.”
The Salt Lake Tribune downloaded an unredacted version from the BLM’s land-planning website while preparing a story on the controversial lease sale, which covered archaeologically rich lands east of Blanding at Montezuma Canyon and Alkali Ridge.
The document details each parcel, giving brief descriptions of documented sites within, from mere “lithic scatters” to “PIII habitation,” a reference to a dwelling from the late Puebloan period around 800 years ago. It details how many recorded sites are in each parcel; the amount of acreage and percentage of the parcel that has been surveyed for cultural resources; the number of sites eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places; and the number of sites within a half-mile of the parcel.
The redacted version blacks out much of this information, as well as references to important sites, such as the Sprit Dog Great House, located in one of the 43 lease parcels.
The unredacted version also provides each known site’s identification number, known as its “Smithsonian trinomial.”
Preservationists say those numbers are not particularly useful to pothunters because they don’t ordinarily reference precise locations found in other databases.
Efforts to reach historic preservation officials with the Navajo and Hopi tribes were not successful.
BLM archaeologists were simply heeding agency policy when they posted the unredacted version, a decision that came after careful consideration, according to BLM spokeswoman Kimberly Finch.
“The BLM did not mistakenly post protected archaeological site information for the lease sale,” she wrote in an email. “We are required by regulations to publicly share Section 106 documentation when there is a known disagreement with the agency’s finding of no adverse effect.”
She was referring to the Historic Preservation Act’s requirements that federal land managers work with American Indian tribes and preservation groups to ensure sensitive sites do not suffer undue damage.
At the time, Ewing and other historic preservationists were challenging the BLM’s official finding that oil and gas leasing in this area could be managed in a way to avoid damaging the known rock art, structures and other cultural resources.
Doelle agreed the unredacted report would probably not serve as a “treasure map” but wondered if the agency made a rushed decision in posting it.
He noted the BLM is generally a reliable steward of archaeological data and avoids releasing information that could direct looters to artifacts.
“The BLM is totally by the book with what someone else reveals,” Doelle said. “Archaeologists often get dinged for releasing too much informant on a site. What is frustrating is that there is so much information on the internet. You have to be a lot more careful these days than when reports were hidden away in a library.”