The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa this month formed an unusual public-private partnership to prosecute looters and vandals of southeast Utah’s Native American treasures.
Under the agreement, Friends of Cedar Mesa will offer a standing reward of up to $2,500 for information that leads to convictions in cases in San Juan County, Utah.
“Most people are unaware of the alarming and ongoing problem of looting and vandalism, including disturbing human remains, in the greater Cedar Mesa area,” said Josh Ewing, executive director for the conservation-minded Friends of Cedar Mesa. “Violators are hard to catch, so we partnered with the BLM to create a fund that hopefully encourages the public to report illegal activity.”
In the past five years, the BLM has reported a surge of disturbing archaeological crimes. Between October 2011 and April 2016, the BLM’s field office in Monticello said it investigated 25 cases of looting, vandalism and disturbance of human remains in San Juan County.
In 2012, a historic Navajo Hogan was torn down by campers.
In 2013, a burial site in Butler Wash was desecrated by looters.
In 2014, a 2,000-year-old pictograph site in Grand Gulch was vandalized.
In 2015, three remote sites on Cedar Mesa were dug up by pot hunters, and a burial alcove was dug up in Beef Basin. A prehistoric wall was pulled down at Monarch Cave on Comb Ridge, and in the same area, a wall at Double Stack ruin was knocked down.
Vandalism has continued in the past four months, the BLM said. In January, a petroglyph was partially removed from a wall with a rock saw and chisel near Bluff, badly marring the ancient rock art. In March, campers on Muley Point built a fire ring out of building blocks from a 2,000-to-3,000-year-old site, and vandals scratched their names in a rock-art cave. In April, ATV riders went off-route to drive through to archaeological sites in the Lower Fish Creek Wilderness Study Area.
Looting and vandalism is also a concern on Canyons of the Ancient National Monument in Southwest Colorado, says monument manager Marietta Eaton. A recent incident is under investigation.
“The American public is betrayed by these crimes,” Eaton said. “When visiting our public lands, report suspicious activity. Protecting our archaeological resources is so important because it’s the heritage of all Americans.”
Archaeological sites and artifacts are protected by numerous federal and state laws, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Archaeological Resources Protection Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Antiquities Act and the Utah State Antiquities Act. Violations of the laws include theft or intentional damage of cliff dwellings, shrines, pottery, stone tools, rock art panels, burials and historic structures.
“These archaeological resources remain sacred to many Native American tribes and are important to many Utah residents. Protecting them is one of the most critical components of the BLM’s mission,” said Jenna Whitlock, acting director of Utah’s BLM office. “I hope that this new reward program sends a strong message to looters, vandals and anyone desecrating burial sites that BLM-Utah considers these crimes morally and legally unacceptable.”
Anyone with information about such crimes is encouraged to call 1-800-722-3998. BLM-Utah’s Office of Law Enforcement and Security will investigate legitimate tips and incidents occurring on BLM-administered lands, and will share information with other entities about crimes in their jurisdictions, Whitlock said.
For details about the reward fund policy, visit CedarMesaFriends.org/reward. In addition to cooperative efforts with BLM-Utah, the Friends of Cedar Mesa partners with the Utah State Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the U.S. Forest Service to promote the protection of archaeological resources in the Cedar Mesa area.