International demand from collectors and museums for early American Indian artifacts is resulting in the looting and rapid destruction of thousands of ancient sites in the West, archeologists say.

The looters are highly professional teams that move in on a site and, with the aid of bulldozers and backhoes, strip it overnight of its pottery, stone implements and bones.

"There is hardly a site, out of tens of thousands in the Southwest, that has not been looted," said Mark Michael, president of the Archeological Conservancy, a Santa Fe, N.M., organization founded in 1979 to buy or otherwise acquire sites for research before they are obliterated by the looters.

"Some of these places are so full of holes they look like the Battle of Verdun," Michael said. "They come in with machinery, scrape off the land six inches at a time, and then their men come in behind them and salvage what is left. Their bulldozers destroy 30 to 40 percent of the pottery. So what? The pots they salvage may bring them a quarter of a million dollars at a time."

The problem, say officials in Arizona and New Mexico, has been worsening despite the passage last year of the Federal Archeological Resources Protection Act, which provides a $10,000 fine and a year in prison for a first offense and a maximum fine of $100,000 and five years in prison for subsequent offenses.

Investigators from five federal agencies hope to make arrests soon among the members of at least one of an estimated dozen looting teams.

Phoenix-based U.S. Atorney Michael Hawkins said that the investigators have been able to place an undercover agent in what he described as a "multimillion-dollar operation." The agent, he said, was able to trace a stolen artifact from a museum back to a looted site on federal land in Arizona.

Although there have been no arrests yet, according to Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), "this is a case involving several prominent citizens. They have been arrogantly and brazenly destroying the last traces of this country's ancient cultural heritage and the law has not slowed them down."

Officials say that only a handful of persons have been prosecuted successfully under various state and federal laws in the last decade, when demand for American Indian artifacts began to rival the demand for looted antiquities from South America.

"We have only one law enforcement officer for 20 million acres of BLM land in Arizona," said Richard Buffington, former Bureau of Land Management director for the state.

Further complicating the legal picture is the fact that most western states do not control digging on sites on privately owned land, a situation archeologists say must be changed. New Mexico has a new law forbidding excavating antiquities with mechanized equipment on private land, but last year the state attorney general's office was unsuccessful in prosecuting an Arizona man who was using a bulldozer on a site near Quemado, N.M. The man said the owner had given him permission to dig.

"It is difficult to get a jury out here that isn't hostile in matters like this," said Jill Cooper, who prosecuted the case. "Ranchers say their land is their land, no one can tell them what to do with it. They don't want any federal or state instrusion."

Some Indian tribes have passed their own antiquities laws, and the Hopi who live in northeast Arizona are patrolling problem areas, said Marcus Sekayouma, a Hopi employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "To us, the removal of any old object is the equivalent of sacrilege."

"But the situation is deteriorating," said David Doyel, archeologist for the Navajo tribe. "We have 20 million acres on our reservation. The place is so big, there are so many major ruins, it is practically impossible to stop looting. The only thing we could go for is light aircraft and helicopter patrol. But we can't afford that, even though the looters sometimes use helicopters."

Michael says commercial looting really began in the late '60s, but it got big time in the last five years. It has been directly coupled with the high prices pieces are fetching at auction. These artifacts, investors find, appreciate just as quickly as stamps, Rembrandts and Persian carpets.

"But for years collectors ignored American antiquities as inferior. They looted Inca, Middle East and Greek artifacts. But then we in the U.S. were suddenly discovered and everyone, the Germans, the Japanese, too, wanted the stuff."

Steven Leblanc, archeology professor at the University of New Mexico, specializes in the study of Mimbres pottery, unique black-on-white objects produced by a now-vanished people in southwest New Mexico around A.D. 1000.

"Of the 13 major sites I know, all have been heavily damaged," said LeBland. "Half have been totally obliterated. There is no trace left. Ninety percent of the remaining sites have been looted. We've lost so much. They have bulldozed and destroyed large ceremonial structures of up to 200 meters in floor area looking for pots."

Foremost in the eyes of many officials and archeologists in the unauthorized digging for pots is C. Frank Turley of Mesa, Ariz., and elusive man raised in a Mormon colony in Chihuahua, Mexico. Turley was arrested for bulldozing a site on a ranch in New Mexico last year, but the case was dismissed.

In an interview, Turley denied "ever breaking the law. Those people who call me a looter don't understand what I am trying to do."

"Ninety percent of the material I dig has gone into public hands," he said. "I have published three articles on my digs." Turley declined, however, to identify the museums that have been recipients of his efforts or the publications his articles appeared in.

But he confirmed a report that he has offered a large collection of Mimbres and Casas grande pottery -- which LeBlanc said "is of questionable origin" -- to New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Many people have made charges against me," Turley said. "But in many cases it is the problem of the professional archeologist trying to put down an amateur archeologist like myself. They claim I don't keep any records. I have recorded every piece I've dug in the last 20 years."

Turley's name is so widely known that when he wrote a proposal to the Apaches living on the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona in February, the tribe turned the correspondence over to its attorney.

Mike Berry, BIA staff archeologist for the Southwest, said, "Turley was asking for blanket permission to dig anywhere on the reservation. He said he reckoned he could get $1 million worth of pots a year out of there and that he'd turn them all over to the tribe as a tax write-off.That kind of offer made a few people stop and think."

Major collectors and gallery owners specalizing in the sale of Indian antiquities have been reluctant to discuss the problem.

The owner of a Scottsdale, Ariz., gallery, who asked not to be identified, said, "There is a very strong, vigorous and surreptitious trade going on among dealers and collectors and the problem for most of us is once the piece is out of the ground, who is to say if it has been looted or even where it comes from?

"If I have a request from a collector or a museum for a certain piece, I keep my ears open. I pass the word. It doesn't take long before I get an offer from someone to supply that piece. Some of us compare this to people buying stolen Cadillacs, but then there isn't a museum or collector in the world who isn't guilty of something like this if he paused to reflect on it."

Mary hamilton, publisher of American Indian Art Magazine, in which most prestigious galleries advertise, said, "we don't have a policy as such regarding the advertising of prehistoric material. But I'm uncomfortable with the problem and we do try to discourage it. Every time we get an ad for a prehistoric piece we get flak from the academic people. But who is to tell if something has been stolen?"