AZ Daily Star
My opinion Jim Kiser
American history didn’t start with English settlers arriving in Virginia or Pilgrims arriving in the Plymouth Colony. It started thousands of years earlier, with the records of that history preserved best here in the American West, where the dry climate slows decomposition.
But we are rapidly losing that history because inadequate funding and conflicting missions hamstring the federal agency entrusted with protecting large portions of it even as threats increase dramatically.
For example, take the Agua Fria National Monument, which straddles Interstate 17 just 40 miles north of Phoenix. Within its 71,100 acres are at least 450 prehistoric sites and four major settlement areas. It once was home to several thousand inhabitants. It contains stone forts, terraced agricultural fields and many petroglyphs.
Consequently, it is "one of the most significant systems of prehistoric sites in the American Southwest," says the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the monument.
Yet, the monument cannot adequately study these sites because it doesn’t have a full-time archaeologist on staff, according to Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Moe spoke May 16 at a public affairs forum in Denver.
Moreover, the monument doesn’t have sufficient staff to handle the five-fold increase in visitors over the past four years. Illegal excavations and artifact collection constitute a continuing threat. Perhaps even more troubling is a tenfold increase in irresponsible off-road vehicle use that scars the land.
Sadly, Agua Fria is not alone. The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in the Four Corners area, for another example, has just one ranger to patrol its 164,000 acres, says a new report by the historic preservation trust.
"The enormous scope of the cultural resources to be found on the BLM public lands continues to dwarf the staff and funds allocated to manage them," says the report, titled "Cultural Resources on the Bureau of Land Management Public Lands."
It was written by Destry Jarvis, whose 33 years of federal land- management experience include stints as assistant director of the National Park Service and senior adviser to the assistant secretary of the Interior. ( www.nationaltrust.org/public_lands/NTHP_BLM_Report.pdf)
The BLM manages 261 million acres, but only about one in every 16 acres has been surveyed for "cultural resources," a phrase that refers to evidence of mostly prehistoric human inhabitation.
"Too few cultural resources management and law enforcement staff, spread too thinly across the West," the report says, results in "too little inventory, monitoring, education or protection of cultural sites."
In addition, rapidly rising energy prices are driving an increase in applications to drill for gas and oil on BLM land. In its haste to process more drilling permits, the BLM has reduced environmental and cultural compliance analysis.
And recreation use on BLM public lands is growing at a faster rate than on any other lands, yet the BLM hasn’t developed adequate regulations for managing recreation use, the report says.
In his address Tuesday, Moe recommended four steps.
First, Congress and the Bush administration must adequately fund the BLM. It manages "the largest, most diverse, most significant collection of cultural and natural resources of any federal land agency," Moe said, yet it receives the few-est dollars per acre to preserve its resources. A comparison: The National Park Service gets about $19 per acre (much too little), while the BLM receives $2.27 per acre for its most significant lands.
Second, it is necessary to survey and identify the natural and cultural resources on BLM land. "You can’t protect it if you don’t know it’s there," Moe said.
Third, the BLM in 2000 created a special category of land, the National Landscape Conservation System, for its most historic and scenic sites. These need to be protected by a law that would emphasize identifying and protecting natural and cultural resources.
Fourth, it is necessary to create a foundation to raise private funds to help protect lands within the National Landscape Conservation System. This, Moe says, "could well be our most lasting gift to the future."
Contact editorial columnist Jim Kiser at email@example.com or 807-8012.