cliff dwelling preserved for millennia by the dry high-desert
climate was included in a March 20 lease sale for oil and
gas companies in southeast Utah. Officials from the federal
Bureau of Land Management published confidential information
online about locations and descriptions of almost 900 Native
American antiquities, including cliff dwellings, in Utah.
Credit: Steven St. John for Reveal
Federal officials mistakenly
published confidential information on locations and descriptions
of about 900 ancient cliff dwellings, spiritual structures, rock
art panels and other Native American antiquities in Utah.
The Bureau of Land Management
posted a 77-page report online that included unique identifiers
for priceless artifacts as it prepared to auction the most archaeologically
rich lands ever offered for industrial use. The report exposed ruins
spanning 13,000 years of Native American history to vandalism and
looting, and experts say the BLM violated federal regulations
that prohibit publicly sharing information about antiquities.
The document appeared
on a BLM web page before the March oil and gas lease
of 51,482 acres in a remote desert region of southeastern Utah.
The BLM removed it and then
reposted it with entire pages of detailed site descriptions
blacked out. The report appeared online the last weekend in February
and remained there for at least a few days long enough for
a state agency in Utah to download it and realize it violated the
states privacy restrictions.
Thats a big
screwup, said Paul Reed, an archaeologist with Archaeology
Southwest, a nonprofit science organization based in Arizona.
If you were a pot hunter wanting to work in southeastern Utah
and knew about the lease process, that would have been a gold mine
Utahs dry red rock
wilderness has preserved ancient evidence of nomadic hunter-gatherers,
farmers and tribes, including the Navajo, Ute and Hopi. Archaeologists
in Utah have relied on BLM secrecy to protect dance circles sprinkled
with shards of ancient black-on-white pottery, circular Navajo structures
known as hogans and points for tools used by Paleoindians to hunt
The reports appearance
online unnerved Native Americans and scientists who provided the
BLM with detailed reports
and comments on antiquities with the understanding that they would
be kept secret.
It did catch me
by surprise, said Josh Ewing, executive director for Friends
of Cedar Mesa, a Bluff, Utah-based nonprofit founded by a former
BLM river ranger. They went to a level with this report that
was very unusual in terms of listing site numbers and descriptions
by parcel that I havent seen before.
of Cedar Mesa Executive Director Josh Ewing looks at ancient
ruins in Utahs Montezuma Canyon, a culturally important
site to Native Americans. After learning that the BLM posted
a report briefly online exposing the locations and descriptions
of hundreds of artifacts, Ewing said it caught him by surprise
and that hed never seen such details publicized before.
Credit: Steven St. John for Reveal
In response to questions
about how the confidential information ended up online, the BLM
did not explain why the report was published.
The agency replaced
the first report with (a) redacted copy of the report that removed
the nature and location of archaeological sites to prevent looting
and vandalism at these sites, Nate Thomas, the BLMs
head archaeologist in Utah, said in an email to Reveal from The
Center for Investigative Reporting.
Native American tribes declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations
with federal agencies on delicate matters on a number of fronts.
The BLMs release
of confidential information occurred as its understaffed field offices
are under strain from an executive order
issued by President Donald Trump last year to relieve the energy
industry of regulatory burdens. A directive
from the Department of Interior urged these offices to speed auctions
of public lands by truncating scientific review and comment periods.
Before the BLM discovered
the publishing error, Reveal downloaded a copy of the unredacted
review. Its existence hasnt been reported until now. According
to the report obtained by Reveal, the 43 parcels in Utah that the
BLM auctioned to oil and gas companies contain 1,282 archaeological
sites and likely hundreds of undiscovered ones.
Of those, 899 were identified
by a unique combination of numbers and letters known as a Smithsonian
trinomial, which catalogs each relic or building by the state
and county where it is located.
The mistakenly released
report didnt include global positioning coordinates for those
sites, but it did list them by parcel numbers that corresponded
with maps published on the BLMs website. It also contained
proper names of archaeological sites, types of relics, numbers of
sites on each parcel and the tribes that might have built them,
which indicates their age. All of that was later redacted by the
The release of the report
is the latest controversy in an intensifying debate about how to
protect the nations heritage as development and tourism explode
across the West.
The BLM which
manages nearly 950 million surface and subsurface acres, primarily
in 12 Western states oversees leasing land to oil and gas
companies. Its required to ensure federal lands are available
for multiple uses while also protecting cultural resources. These
two responsibilities collided in the March 20 auction of lands in
A Reveal investigation
published in March found that the administrations expedited
move to open public lands to energy exploration puts at risk scores
of ancient buildings, vessels, petroglyphs and roads. An analysis
of hundreds of pages of federal documents, memos, protest letters
and interviews showed the BLM expedited lease sales without analyzing
all available cultural resource data.
Under its regulations,
the BLM must conduct environmental reviews and seek public comments
before auctioning off federal land to the highest bidders. The agency
also must make a reasonable and good faith effort to
identify historic properties with the assistance of consulting parties
and tribes, who say keeping the information they provide secret
is paramount to protecting these sites.
becomes public and is on the internet, trying to keep it a secret
is a lost cause, Ewing said. I can think of thousands
of sites I know of in San Juan County that are not public and are
not known to the people and they shouldnt be published.
Looters download such
information and sell it. Conservationists work feverishly to get
it taken down.
The internet has
changed everything now there is widespread information on
sites that were completely unknown two or three years ago,
said Diane Orr, co-chairman of the conservation committee for the
Utah Rock Art Research Association, a consulting party on the BLM
lease sale in Utah.
shard lies on the ground in southeast Utah. Credit: Steven
St. John for Reveal
States protect their
cultural resources differently. Utah tightly restricts access. Only
qualified archaeologists can access these computer systems, after
receiving credentials and signing a users agreement with Utahs
State Historic Preservation Office.
Attorneys for conservation
organizations said that several regulations
require the federal government to keep such information confidential.
The law would prohibit
publicly publishing site locations and site names, said Laura
Peterson, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance,
which was a consulting party on the March sale. Her organization
and several other parties signed a memorandum of understanding with
the BLM to protect such information.
When we filed a
to this sale we had one version that was public and a second version
that had more information we gave directly to archaeologists at
the BLM because of confidentiality concerns, she said.
Little is understood
about Ancient Puebloans, basketmakers and others who lived, worked,
migrated and died on and near the auctioned lands. Several auctioned
parcels are located near Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national
There are thousands
of undiscovered sites, Hannah Russell, vice president of government
affairs and research for the Utah Professional Archaeological Council,
which was a consulting party to the March lease, said in an email
Inventories exist for
only 2 percent to 55 percent of the parcels the BLM auctioned in
Utahs Grand and San Juan counties. Using new technologies,
scientists are beginning to understand connections between prehistoric
peoples in southeastern Utah and other places in the Four Corners
area. About 1,000 new archaeological sites were discovered in fiscal
year 2017 alone on land the BLM oversees in Utah.
Utah sits at multiple
cultural intersections in history and so there is still so much
to learn, said Russell, the principal investigator and owner
at Moab-based Cottonwood Archaeology, LLC. A useful parable
for understanding what archaeologists are trying to extrapolate
from the archaeological record is the one about blind men feeling
Paradoxically, most of
the sites in confidential state and BLM databases were discovered
after developers or oil and gas companies hired archaeologists to
survey areas prior to construction or drilling.
locations should be kept confidential, Russell said. Archaeological
resources are in danger of intentional and unintentional impacts
from people who take from archaeological sites, loot archaeological
sites, graffiti archaeological sites, or inadvertently trample,
break, or touch archaeological sites and materials.
For three decades, Archaeology Southwest has practiced a holistic,
conservation-based approach to exploring the places of the past.
We call this Preservation Archaeology. By exploring what makes a
place special, sharing this knowledge in innovative ways, and enacting
flexible site protection strategies, we foster meaningful connections
to the past and respectfully safeguard its irreplaceable resources.
of Cedar Mesa
Friends of Cedar Mesa works to ensure that the public lands in San
Juan County, with all their cultural and natural values, are respected
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