Recent Utah looting underscores need for artifact protections

Canyons of the Ancients cultural site in the Four Corners area, where less than 1/5 of land has been inventoried. Courtesy BLM.

In the Four Corners region, among the rugged mountains, mesas and deep canyons of the high desert there are pockets of desert wilderness where the soil is the only thing standing between travelers and a wealth of ancient Pueblo artifacts.

In these lands, the ancient Pueblo people once settled villages with hundreds of family farms. Today, the area is rich with evidence of their small communities, but it’s also a hotbed for those looking to profit from illegally selling this priceless cultural heritage.

In fact, last month the FBI and the Department of the Interior arrested a circle of nearly two dozen people in Utah on charges of theft of government and Indian property and illegally trafficking artifacts. While controversy has arisen over the alleged overuse of force in the arrests, the case and its resulting widespread media reports underscore the vulnerability of the region.

The artifacts in the alleged theft cases include ancient Pueblo pottery, created centuries ago, as well as ceremonial masks and a buffalo headdress, according to the Department of the Interior.

Today, the descendants of the ancient Pueblo speak of their ancestors with great respect and believe that their spirits still live in the ancient pueblos. Stories about the lives they lived can still be found in the pottery, ancient masks, and stone tools they left behind.

These stories are lost forever when looters remove priceless artifacts and sell them, which is why it’s so important that these lands, and others like them, receive the protections they deserve.

In fact, cultural treasures throughout the West have not yet received the full measure of protection they merit, but a new federal land conservation system called the National Landscape Conservation System offers hope.

“Recently Congress created this spectacular conservation system of incredibly diverse lands, providing an incredible opportunity to conserve, protect, and restore both our natural and cultural treasures, but additional resources are needed to bolster enforcement efforts,” said Kevin Mack, Wilderness Society Campaign Director for the National Landscape Conservation System.

The National Landscape Conservation System includes some of the most significant cultural resources on public lands in the United States, from prehistoric ancient pueblos to the remains of the western frontier era migration and gold rush.

Painted Hand Pueblo within Canyons of the Ancients in the Four Corners area. Courtesy BLM.Some national monuments managed by the BLM have thousands of recorded cultural sites. Yet many Conservation System units have recorded only a fraction of their cultural sites.

In Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, known to have the greatest density of cultural sites in America, just 18 percent of the Monument’s 164,000 acres have been inventoried.

The Conservation System represents only 10 percent of the land the Bureau of Land Management administers, but it accounts for an incredible amount of the known cultural resources managed by the agency. Adequate funding of the Conservation System is essential if these vital elements of our past are to be conserved for future generations.

The Wilderness Society is working with the Obama administration and Congress to ensure these treasured landscapes receive the attention they deserve, including being adequately funded to conserve, protect and restore the natural and cultural treasures these landscapes contain.

“There is an historic opportunity with the new Conservation System to shape the way our public lands are managed, including providing essential on the ground protection to the rich natural and cultural resources that are present in so many of these landscapes. The Obama administration is positioned to leave a legacy for future generations and has the opportunity to set a high bar for the conservation of our public lands,” Mack explained.

There is a Pueblo blessing in which one line states: “Hold on to what is good, even if it is a handful of earth.”

We would do well to follow this advice and choose to make the preservation of our rich cultural heritage a priority.

Click here to learn more about The Wilderness Society’s vision for the National Landscape Conservation System.

Canyons of the Ancients cultural site in the Four Corners area, where less than 1/5th of land has been inventoried. Courtesy BLM.
Painted Hand Pueblo within Canyons of the Ancients in the Four Corners area. Courtesy BLM.