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Last January, Utah hiking guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt was exploring Sacred Mesa near Bluff when he discovered the remains of an archaeological treasure that someone had tried to remove from the landscape. Armed with a rock saw, chisel and seriously poor judgment, the culprit had cut part of a 2,000-year-old petroglyph from the rock, leaving a conspicuous scar where an intact piece of art was once on permanent display.
Such incidents have become all too familiar in Utah's San Juan County, which has more archaeological sites per square mile than any other U.S. county, totaling about 250,000. Federal officials fear looting is on the rise, with at least 25 incidents reported to the Bureau of Land Management's Monticello field office since 2011.
And because the BLM lacks the resources to adequately monitor these cultural treasures, it's turning to private-sector partners and the public for help. For the first time, the agency is offering a standing reward of $2,500 for information leading to the conviction of those who steal or vandalize archaeological sites and artifacts on Utah's public lands, officials announced Wednesday at a gathering of BLM staff and program partners in the Natural History Museum of Utah.
"These resources are the story of Utah's past. They are priceless, they are irreplaceable and when they are gone, they're gone," said Jenna Whitlock, the BLM's acting Utah director. "We are aiming to eliminate looting and vandalism in Utah, but we need help from our friends. It is up to us all to ensure our cultural resources are here tomorrow. These places have very special, religious and spiritual meaning to Native American communities today. Looting damages Utah's heritage, and it is against the law."
Those with information can report such crimes by calling 800-722-3998. The new $2,500 reward was among a suite of measures announced Wednesday under the a program called Respect and Protect.
The reward money comes from private funds put up by Bluff-based Friends of Cedar Mesa, one of many groups advocating for a national monument on the archaeologically rich lands associated with Bears Ears. About a fifth of San Juan County's archaeological sites are found on Cedar Mesa and surrounding features west of Bluff and Blanding that are part of the proposed monument.
Moments before Wednesday's announcement, Whitlock and the group's executive director, Josh Ewing, signed a memorandum of understanding that had been in the works for at least a year. Ewing hopes to expand the arrangement to include state trust lands, the Forest Service and the National Park Service agencies whose San Juan County holdings also are home to troves of at-risk sites.
The Sacred Mesa theft occurred only a few miles west of Ewing's home in Bluff. The perpetrator had used a rock saw in a failed effort to separate the image from the rock, according to Ewing.
"When the rock saw didn't work, they took out a chisel and they totally ruined this piece of history, sacred to Native Americans, and they didn't even do a good job," Ewing said. The thieves removed the left side of the petroglyph, which presumably came off in pieces.
"That's the kind of person we need to catch," he said. "You are not going to educate them out of doing that sort of activity. That's a law enforcement thing."
In the past year, three ancient burial sites on Cedar Mesa have been looted, according to Ewing. In search of pots and other artifacts, the looters sometimes toss human remains aside, leaving a testament to their callousness.
"Pot hunters are looting at places where people aren't looking," Ewing said. "They use ATVs on illegal roads, getting way out in the backcountry."
Carelessness is responsible for as much damage as looting, but that problem can be solved through public awareness. Ewing has encountered several instances where visitors knocked down ancient walls, drove through archaeological sites and plundered ancient structures for firewood.
"A lot of people just don't know that a dog running around a ruin can erode a site and cause a wall to fall down, or that if they are not watching their child, they could pick up a piece of charcoal and ruin a 3,000-year-old pictograph," Ewing said. In other instances, visitors thoughtlessly scratched their names across rock art or added their own flourishes to the ancient works.
"There is also an unprecedented increase in the use of public lands, and some of these places are being loved to death by well-meaning visitors," Whitlock said, "but they don't have the information they need." Visitation at Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge areas that have very little in the way of interpretive and trailhead facilities has climbed to about 150,000.
The BLM has teamed with the nonprofit Tread Lightly to get the word out. The new program "will empower Utah's public to enjoy their cultural and natural heritage in a way that minimizes damage to these places," said Lori McCullough, executive director of Tread Lightly. Her group is taking Respect and Protect on the road for campaign launch events in five Utah towns this summer.
Whitlock also announced an expansion of the BLM's site-steward program and encouraged people to volunteer to periodically check on sites and document abuses they see.
Twitter: @brianmaffly Respect and Protect events
Vernal • June 11
St. George • June 16
Moab • July 28
Price • Aug. 27
Escalante • Sept. 24