Protecting the West: A Way Forward

Looting is only one of a host of threats to our culturally significant public lands. Off-road vehicle use and the creation of inappropriate new trails have severely damaged historic sites. Energy projects—the development of gas wells, transmission lines, access roads, and most recently, solar and wind farms—threaten historic landscapes and archaeological resources that have yet to be surveyed or catalogued. Increased historic site visitation by a public poorly educated in proper etiquette leads to damage and vandalism.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has taken bold steps to protect our cherished landscapes. Recently, the National Trust joined a coalition of environmental groups to bring a successful legal challenge against oil and gas leases that BLM was granting near Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon, one of the densest rock art sites in the world. The Department of the Interior has now called for a moratorium on most of the leases, hoping to reduce the number of large trucks kicking up dust and debris, which endanger the art.

In a report just submitted to the Secretary of the Interior, the National Trust also called for better stewardship of America’s western lands. In BLM’s Monticello field office in southeastern Utah, the report notes, the cultural resources program gets a scant 4.6 cents of funding per acre. BLM, meanwhile, has surveyed just six to seven percent of its approximately 258 million acres and needs more specialists to help identify archaeological sites and other resources before they’re damaged.

The National Trust is urging Congress to increase BLM funding from $15.6 million to $50.6 million over the next five years. Additional funding would help BLM and other agencies educate ­visitors, stabilize and restore damaged landmarks, and hire more rangers and law enforcement officials to guard against vandals and looters. By surveying sites, more effective plans can be implemented for energy and other projects, ensuring that the nation’s priceless cultural heritage doesn’t vanish before it’s even been documented.

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