Owned by Us All

Trust fight for public lands expands.

Canyons of the Ancients

Credit: Robert Jensen, BLM

Two thousand years ago, the Anasazi settled on a vast plateau in what is now southwestern Colorado. There they covered canyon walls with petroglyphs and built sturdy, intricate structures, including canyon-edge towers and kivas, rooms for religious rituals.

These sites now fall within a 165,000-acre National Monument called Canyons of the Ancients, and it has possibly the highest density of cultural resources in the country, at an average of 100 per square mile. The monument, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is open to the public, and visitors can explore the canyon freely. Yet its vastness and accessibility have also made it difficult for BLM to protect the site effectively; about a dozen incidents of vandalism—from graffiti on ancient wall art to looting of prehistoric pots and tools—are reported annually. "Most of these incidents occur off the beaten path, and [a ranger] simply has to be at the right place at the right time," says LouAnn Jacobson, manager of the monument. "The number of sites and the remoteness of the area make it very difficult to look after."

Collectively, BLM, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service oversee 536 million acres of federal lands, the majority of them in the West. Like Canyons of the Ancients, many of these places contain important cultural and historical resources, from ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings to early-20th-century dude ranches. Yet these agencies are consistently understaffed and underfunded—for example, a single BLM ranger is responsible for looking after an average of two million acres. Many locations have not been thoroughly surveyed, and so the stewarding agencies are often uncertain as to what resources they are protecting. And, as at Canyons of the Ancients, the treasures on these lands are susceptible to vandalism, looting, or other damage.

"These are irreplaceable sites that go way back to the beginning of human experience in America, and they're increasingly at risk," says National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe. "Once damaged or destroyed, they're gone forever. They deserve to be preserved for future generations, just like any historic building in any neighborhood."

The National Trust has long supported the preservation of historic sites on public lands. In 2004, to better advocate for those resources and enhance federal stewardship, the Trust formed the Public Lands Initiative. The Trust's regional offices work with its law and public-policy staffs to identify ways to protect and preserve the resources and educate the public about them. "We wanted to use all the resources that are available at the National Trust to help protect these sites," says Barbara Pahl, director of the mountains/plains office and the Public Lands Initiative. And with the huge number of important cultural treasures on these sites, adds Pahl, "why wouldn't we want to be their champion?"

The sites need the support. The agencies face pressure from competing industries, such as energy development or off-road recreation, to lease land that may have fragile artifacts. Because of such threats, several sites have been named to the Trust's annual 11-most-endangered lists—from Montana's Glacier National Park (in 1996), where historic hotels and chalets were threatened with demolition, to Utah's Nine Mile Canyon (in 2004), the site of more than 10,000 Native American petroglyphs.

The Public Lands Initiative will release a report this spring about the Forest Service, outlining ways that the agency can better steward its public lands and identify assets of historic or cultural significance in its domain. The initiative has also worked on the National Landscape Conservation System Act, currently awaiting a congressional vote; the act would make the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) a permanent BLM entity. The NLCS, which helps manage and protect Canyons of the Ancients and BLM's other "crown jewels," was established in 2000 and currently exists only through administrative designation, meaning that when a new U.S. president takes over in 2009, it could be disbanded. "[These] cultural resources," says Elyssa Rosen, communications director of the Conservation System Alliance, "represent the opening chapters in the story of America, making them fundamental to the National Trust's mission."      

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