Correction to This Article
The headline on a May 16 Federal Page article incorrectly said that a study found exploitation and neglect of Western parks. The study referred not to parkland but to culturally and historically significant sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Study Finds Western Parks Exploited, Neglected

The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado includes archaeological sites. The BLM's
The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado includes archaeological sites. The BLM's "priority is energy right now, and the rest gets short shrift," said Richard Moe of National Trust for Historic Preservation. (Bureau Of Land Management Via Associated Press)

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By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

DENVER, May 15 -- In the high desert country of southwestern Colorado, near the only spot on the map where four states meet, the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument offers a rich archaeological record of the first Americans, with caves and mesas full of remnants left by hunters and pueblo dwellers who lived there over thousands of years.

The Pueblo people left the Four Corners region around 1400, historians say, and the dusty country was largely untouched by humans for centuries. But today, the monument is busy again, both with large-scale oil and gas development and with an increasing flow of tourists.

To keep order amid all this activity, the responsible federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management, employs one ranger to patrol the entire national monument -- an expanse of mountains and lowlands covering 256 square miles, about four times the size of Washington, D.C.

That discrepancy between land area and staff size is common for many of the culturally and historically important sites across the western United States that are managed by the BLM, according to a study due to be issued Tuesday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"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." The study was written by a longtime Interior Department official, T. Destry Jarvis.

The BLM's management of historic sites on federal land "too often spotlights the bad things that can happen to good places," says Richard Moe, president of the preservation group. Moe is scheduled to address the issue in a speech here Tuesday.

BLM lands, Moe says, "are thickly sown with natural and cultural resources. Today, much of that heritage is in real danger of being destroyed" because of inadequate staffing and funding at the BLM.

The BLM is responsible for about 262 million acres of federally owned land, mostly in the West. Traditionally, the BLM was known as the "bureau of everything else," the agency that was left with the public land that was not taken by homesteaders, states, national parks and national forests.

But since 1966, the BLM has also been given management authority of lands protected by Congress as "national monuments" -- parcels set aside for special care because of natural or historic significance.

Today, the BLM manages national monuments, national historic trails, wild and scenic rivers, and 400 sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Surveys show that the lands contain hundreds of thousands of "cultural properties," the catch-all term for anything -- from a complete village to a single arrowhead -- that evidences human activity.

In addition to Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients, the BLM manages Utah's Nine Mile Canyon, a long stretch of rocky cliffs covered with ancient Indian paintings and carvings that has been called the "world's longest art gallery." The bureau also controls the Agua Fria National Monument, a rolling stretch of desert north of Phoenix, and Wyoming's South Pass, the historic spot where pioneer wagon trains and Pony Express riders crossed the Continental Divide on the Oregon, California and Mormon trails.

With more and more historical and scenic sites in its portfolio, the BLM in 2000 created a special category of land -- the National Landscape Conservation System -- for special management concerns. That was important, Moe says, because "it was the first time they recognized that all BLM acres are not equal, that some of this land needs more protection."

But the NLCS lands, about 10 percent of the BLM total, face a series of risks, according to the new study.

Increased recreational usage puts severe pressure on some areas, the report says, particularly from the many varieties of high-powered off-road vehicles.

Soaring energy prices, meanwhile, have caused a rapid increase in applications to drill for gas, oil and other fuels on BLM land, and the agency has geared up to meet this demand. At the same time, Indian tribes are increasingly concerned about public use of their former homelands; the BLM has a continuing issue with the tribes as to whether human remains and artifacts found on bureau-managed land should be left in place, or removed and given to a tribal government.

The new study says the agency lacks the money to deal adequately with these issues. Beyond that, Moe charges that the BLM "has let their missions get out of whack. The extraction part, serving the energy industry, is hugely out of balance with the preservation business. Their priority is energy right now, and the rest gets short shrift."

The BLM's budget shows far more spending on energy and minerals extraction and grazing than for cultural preservation or policing. But bureau spokeswoman Celia Boddington says "it is misleading to focus on those separate line items. Our functions overlap. We require all of our law enforcement personnel to spend time each summer in the higher-use area, policing off-highway vehicles. And we work closely with state and local police to protect the historic areas we manage."

The National Trust's study notes that only 6 percent of BLM lands have been surveyed to measure historical and cultural value. Boddington says that figure, too, is misleading. "We try to survey in the areas that get the most use. And the probability of culture resources can be estimated fairly well, so you don't survey everything. We know you are more likely to find historic remnants in a river valley than on the side of a steep mountain."

With little chance of increased public spending for historic preservation on public lands, other sources of funding are needed, the study says. One possibility, it suggests, is increased user fees, both for drillers and miners extracting minerals and for hikers, bikers and tourists.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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