The Bureau of Land Management blocked at least 14 of its staff archaeologists and other specialists from attending a major scientific conference this year, at a time when archeological sites have become a flashpoint in the debate over public lands protection.
The archeologists and other BLM employees, many working and living in Western states, were originally scheduled to attend the annual meeting in Washington of the Society for American Archaeology, the largest organization of professional archaeologists in the Western Hemisphere.
But officials at BLM’s headquarters in Washington only authorized the attendance of three archaeologists, citing “the potential travel and other costs” of the trips.
“The decision was made after reviewing the conference topics and agenda, and we sent the people who could best represent the BLM,” BLM spokeswoman Amber Cargile told The Washington Post. “We value our professional relationship with SAA and the important role our archaeologists play in the Bureau's multiple use mission.”
The archaeologists from BLM were scheduled to give a presentation at a symposium titled “Tough Issues in Land Management Archaeology,” which ultimately had to be cancelled due to the lack of participation of government scientists.
Now some archaeological and environmental groups point to the decision as another example of the Trump Interior Department’s effort to restrict researchers’ communications with the public and fellow scientists. (BLM is part of Interior.)
“From what I understand, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to do this,” said Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with the nonprofit archaeology organization Archaeology Southwest. “It’s a lost opportunity. This meeting only happens once a year.”
“I certainly think this is a part of the overall political shift,” Reed added.
Federal work databases maintained by FederalPay.org and FedsDataCenter.com show that 17 of the scheduled presenters at the SAA symposium were employed by BLM as of 2017. An Interior Department employee, speaking under condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, confirmed that the 17 work for BLM. The bureau did not tell The Post which three employees it ultimately sent to the conference.
The symposium was going to touch on several contentious issues, according to the event schedule, including the enforcement of the 1906 Antiquities Act under which President Barack Obama designated numerous new national monuments now under review by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, grants the commander-in-chief authority to set aside public land — including archaeological sites — for natural, scientific or cultural protection. Former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton did just that when they created the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, respectively, in Utah. One of the justifications for the national monument designations was to protect culturally historic sites for Native Americans.
The Utah monument areas, each overseen in part by BLM, have both been raided by artifact looters. Only permitted researchers can legally dig for artifacts on BLM lands.
But many conservatives, including many Utahns who wants better access to the land for grazing and other commercial activity, saw the sprawling size of both designations as a case of classic federal overreach.
Late last year, President Trump officially moved to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante by more than 1.1 million acres and more than 800,000 acres, respectively. "They don't know your land, and truly, they don't care for your land like you do," Trump told Utah lawmakers and other residents in Salt Lake City in December. "But from now on, that won't matter."
The head of the Society for American Archaeology expressed disappointment that BLM archaeologists could not share their knowledge of the land with other researchers gathered in Washington.
“Archaeologists from around the world were deprived of a symposium filled with valuable information about the tough issues facing land-managing agencies,” SAA president Susan Chandler said in a statement.
The scientific society added that archaeologists from federal land management agencies, including the BLM, have regularly attended and presented at SAA conferences since the government began hiring archaeologists after the passage of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.
One BLM employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said that staffers vetted their conference attendance through the BLM director’s office for approval during both the Obama and Trump administrations. Under both administrations, budget was a consideration, but under Trump “individual events themselves and topics to be covered got more scrutiny," the employee said.
"This entire incident reeks of scientific interference to advance the administration’s energy-at-all-costs agenda," said Aaron Weiss, media director at the Center for Western Priorities.
The restriction on archaeologists attending the conference this year did not span the entire Interior Department. The National Park Service, another division within Interior, gave the greenlight to all 25 of its archaeologists who asked for permission to go to the SAA conference, NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum said.
At other times, however, various Interior Department agencies reined in how government-funded science is publicized.
Last year, officials at Interior headquarters directed the U.S. Geological Survey to delete a line from a news release discussing the role climate change played in raising Earth’s oceans and removed two top climate experts at Montana's Glacier National Park from a delegation scheduled to show Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg around the park full of shrinking glaciers.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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