Saving Western Culture

Monday, May 22, 2006

ALTHOUGH IT receives far less attention than the National Park Service or the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management -- the Interior Department's forgotten stepchild -- controls a huge chunk of the American West: 261 million acres of federal land in 11 states, or about as much land as the holdings of the other more famous agencies put together. Unlike the national parks or the national forests, the BLM's land is specifically designated as "multiple use." That means that it can be leased for grazing or mineral extraction, can be freely used for recreation, and is not fenced off from the locals, many of whom depend on it for their livelihoods.

But this vast chunk of real estate is not only oil wells and pasture. It contains landscapes of intense beauty and cultural treasures as well: Native American archeological sites, cave and rock paintings, and historic trails. Although they have been there for centuries, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently published a report pointing out that they are suddenly threatened. An exponential increase in the popularity of off-road vehicles, the recent expansion of exurbs and the administration's policy of rapid distribution of drilling licenses have led to an increase in destruction and vandalism. Among other things, the trust points out that only 6 percent of the BLM's land has even been surveyed for cultural and archeological resources. Obviously, it isn't possible to protect things that nobody knows exists.

The report offers several solutions to this problem, including more funding, both for surveys of BLM land and for more rangers to protect cultural sites from damage. But the deeper problem is one of policy, not funding. The BLM says that cultural landmarks are taken into consideration when a drilling license is issued, but clearly this doesn't go far enough. The bureau should consider other tactics as well, such as charging fees for use by off-road vehicles, using existing fees for oil and mineral leases to protect cultural sites, cooperating more intensely with local tribes, and expanding its volunteer ranger program to include a greater emphasis on cultural protection. Simply making this issue more central to the agency's mandate could go a long way toward ensuring that centuries-old treasures in the West don't disappear within the next few decades.

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