August 18, 2007

Steward program gives desert's fragile artifacts a fighting chance

SLIDESHOW: Restoring the old stamp mill

The Press-Enterprise

When Bruce and Penny Tappeiner saw what had been done to one of their favorite places in the desert, they were horrified.

Vandals had attacked the remains of an old stamp mill in a canyon not far from Desert Center, pelting the historic stone structure with beer-bottle Molotov cocktails and turning its window and door frames into charred wood and ash.

The Tappeiners had been to the site before, but this trip was their first since volunteering to serve as site stewards for the Bureau of Land Management. The program helps government archaeologists protect sensitive sites within their jurisdiction.

Accompanied by Wanda Raschkow, the BLM archaeologist for the Palm Springs Desert District, the Tappeiners found the area near the mining structure littered with spent rounds of ammunition, broken glass, plastic bottles and other trash. But what struck them was the intentional attack on an archaeological resource.

"It just really crushes you because it's important," Penny Tappeiner said.

"It's old and it's beautiful. To see people destroy it like that, it's just frustrating," she added.

Restoring Damaged Sites

On this visit, the Palm Springs couple got a chance to help repair some of that damage. The Tappeiners, who consider themselves amateur archaeologists, joined a group of National Park Service employees who spent the day reframing the damaged windows and door and replacing some of the masonry that had collapsed.

"To partially preserve it is really neat," said Bruce Tappeiner. "I'm ecstatic. We just have to take steps that it remains so. We'll be posting signs and trying to limit access."

They hope to block off the road that leads right to the site. He hopes forcing people to walk across a wash to get to the mill will help limit future damage.

Their project is just one example of the long-running challenge of identifying and protecting millions of historic sites on public lands. That challenge is particularly great in the desert regions of the Southwest, where one archaeologist may be responsible for a region that covers millions of acres.

That's why, the archaeologists say, the site steward program is so important. It puts additional observers in the field, who can report on illegal activities that might endanger existing sites, such as looting, vandalism and negligent offroading. They also can help identify new historical sites.

Jim Shearer is the archaeologist for the 3.2 million-acre region covered by the BLM's Barstow office. He has seven volunteer site stewards and hopes to add more. Recently, he said, he has seen more damage to sites in his region.

"In the last six months, it seems to have increased dramatically," Shearer said. "I've had multiple reports."

Looted Petroglyphs

One place hit by looters is Inscription Canyon, north of Barstow. Here, a 300-yard-long stretch of sandy ground is banked by 30-foot walls of basalt boulders peppered with fantastic images of big horn sheep and geometric designs of unknown meaning.

The scars are unmistakable: caramel-colored cavities where chunks of the otherwise black rock face have been removed -- chipped away by thieves. The looters use drills, chisels and pry bars to remove sections of rock containing petroglyphs.

The increase in damage that Shearer has seen may be limited to his region. Officials in the BLM's Needles office say they have noted a decline in such incidents in recent months. Rolla Queen, the archaeologist for the California Desert District, which covers all of Southern California's desert area, says he hasn't noticed much of a change.

"There's always been a low level of what we call pot hunting," Queen says. "We know it's going on, but we don't have a way to track it systematically."

The state BLM office also was unable to provide such statistics.

Queen says he has seen steady pilfering in the 12 years he's been with the district. In many desert areas, particularly those composed of a rocky surface called desert pavement, artifacts are often found lying on the surface. People who pick up such objects may not even know they are breaking the law, he says.

Limited Artifacts

They also may not appreciate the damage they are doing. Compared with other ancient cultures, little is known about the American Indians of the desert region. And when the limited artifacts that exist begin disappearing, whatever might have been learned from them disappears as well.

The Archaeological Resource Protection Act, passed in 1979, was meant to help prevent such damage. It provides for as much as two years in prison and fines up to $20,000 for looting or damaging a historic site. But prosecutions are rare.

"It's really difficult to catch people in the act," Queen says. "In some areas we have only one or two rangers for several thousand square miles. People can be out there digging for days, and you just don't know about it."

Site Steward Program

This is where the site steward program can help. Sponsored by the Society for California Archaeology, it is designed to increase surveillance. Volunteers take a two-day class and then are assigned a site or sites to monitor.

The Tappeiners say they visit the mining site at least once a month during the summer and twice a month during the rest of the year. They haul away the trash they find and photograph and report any evidence of illegal off-road activity or vandalism. If they encounter someone damaging an area, they are trained not to make contact but to gather what information they can, including license plate numbers, and contact law enforcement officials.

On most of their desert visits, they never see another soul, they said.

The recent workday was an exception. A crew of nine workers mixed concrete, nailed frames and used the rocks on site to rebuild a retaining wall and the areas around the door and windows.

Dave Yubeta, an exhibit specialist at Tumacacori National Historical Park in Arizona, was leading the group. He said his crew spends about four months of the year restoring sites throughout the Southwest. The following day, they were set to begin a two-week project in Joshua Tree National Park.

Protecting Resources

Site stewardship programs have become popular in Arizona, Yubeta said.

"When we have sites like this, you have to rely on site stewards," he said. "The program is the only way to protect resources."

For Penny Tappeiner, it's a chance to enjoy two of her passions.

"It's a perfect match for people who love the outdoors and want to give back to the community," she said.

Barstow's Shearer is hoping that as such programs grow, fewer sites will be damaged and fewer keys to our history will disappear.

"Once it's gone," he says, "it's lost forever."