This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
RANGE CREEK CANYON - The hunting in this remote area of eastern Utah's Book Cliffs has gone to ruins.
Ironically, what is perhaps the most significant archaeological find in Utah history, and one that has grabbed headlines coast to coast, made its way into state ownership, thanks to hunting enthusiasts.
The state Division of Wildlife Resources - charged with managing Range Creek Canyon where the prehistoric Fremont people lived - is now in the unusual position of riding herd on pit houses and pictographs, rather than trophy elk and bighorn sheep.
And that has made archaeologists nervous: DWR's expertise is not in protecting antiquities.
Meanwhile, the big game has been scared off by scientists scouring the area in search of ancient villages, and sightseers on the prowl for rock art and relics.
"The sportsmen are kind of taking it in the shorts," said Byron Bateman, president of Utah-based Sportsmen for Habitat. "We spent our time and efforts to get the thing done. But we don't get much credit."
But when hunting enthusiasts approached then-U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen in 2002 to secure funding to purchase the Wilcox Ranch, which encompasses the canyon, no one - outside of Waldo Wilcox - knew the 2,200-acre spread was rife with relics. The Fremont inhabited the area from about A.D. 300 to 1300, and then mysteriously disappeared.
Before Utah took ownership in 2004, Range Creek Canyon was known for its big game and was the only reasonable access to large U.S. Bureau of Land Management-owned tracts of prime hunting ground to its east.
"Don Peay [of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife] and his guys came to see me and said, 'We think it's unfair that we can't get to that BLM land. It's public land,' '' Hansen recalled recently. "It's like a Shangri-la, and Wilcox had the only access to it."
As the chairman of the House Resources Committee, Hansen successfully sponsored legislation that paid for half of the $2.5 million asking price.
When Utah did not come up with the other half - as was initially envisioned - Sen. Bob Bennett introduced a second bill that earmarked an additional $1 million for the purchase. The Legislature eventually appropriated the balance, and the BLM transferred the title to Utah.
When the enormous and undisturbed archaeological find was made known, public access became a big sticking point, said state Archaeologist Kevin Jones. Because taxpayer funds were used to purchase Range Creek Canyon, public admittance had to be guaranteed. But archeologists feared unfettered access would open the door to vandalism.
Utah officials are attempting to "walk a fine line" - allowing public traffic while protecting the Fremont ruins from inadvertent damage as well as looters, Jones said.
A compromise between wildlife officials and archaeologists makes Range Creek Canyon open to the public through a special permit system administered by the DWR. And visitors can enter only on foot or horseback.
"Whether an agency that manages wildlife is the best one for protecting archaeological sites is the question," Jones said. "There isn't an inherent conflict between those mandates, but DWR has very little experience in managing cultural heritage."
Many ruins across the Southwest - particularly in southern Utah - continue to be raided.
"Active looters right now are looting and putting their finds up on Web sites," Jones said. "We hope we have proper law enforcement, but you can't stop people from robbing banks."
In the end, poaching a big buck and looting a 1,000-year-old pot may not be much different, said Derris Jones, DWR supervisor for Utah's Southeast Region. When it comes to enforcing the law in the backcountry, the DWR is the obvious choice.
"You need someone with a badge and authority out there," he said. "There was a lot of concern from archaeologists: Can DWR protect this? But we are capable, and we can protect it."
Of the 2,000 visitors to Range Creek Canyon during the past year, none went to hunt big game or to fish, Jones said. From April through December, the DWR has an officer in Range Creek Canyon every day.
Nonetheless, there has been some looting, said University of Utah professor Duncan Metcalf, the lead archaeologist on the project.
Metcalf heads a summer archaeology school where students comb rugged sandstone cliffs to locate and map Fremont pit houses and granaries.
Fremont ruins are subtle; they are hard to see even for people looking right at them. That makes it hard for looters, as well as those who would protect the antiquities.
"People walk down the canyon and they don't see things," he said. "Everyone is worried about these sites, but you can't protect them until you know where they are."
Access to Range Creek Canyon
One-day permits are available online (http://wildlife.utah.gov) for $5.
Permits are not available at the canyon.
Permits can be drawn for five consecutive days.
Only 28 permits are issued per day.
Permit and identification must be shown upon request.
Access is on foot or horseback only.
No camping or fires are allowed.