SUWA Challenges BLM’s Failure to Protect Cultural Resources

Jeeps in Behind the Rocks
A designated route in the Behind the Rocks proposed wilderness. Photo copyright Liz Thomas/SUWA.

SUWA recently filed an appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals challenging the Moab BLM office’s decision to issue the 10-Year Jeep Safari Permit.  The BLM’s decision approves not only the annual Jeep Safari event, but also 36 other commercial outfitter and organized group permits on 34 Jeep Safari routes stretching 782 miles across public lands.

SUWA’s challenge is based on the BLM’s failure to comply with federal laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), statutes intended to protect valuable cultural and environmental resources.  The BLM’s failure to comply with the NHPA is also included in SUWA’s challenge of the six resource management plans (RMPs) and travel plans issued in 2008.

BLM Ignored Its Own Inventory Data

Prior to issuing the 10-Year Jeep Safari decision, the BLM failed to inventory the 782 miles of Jeep Safari routes, as required by the NHPA, to identify possible cultural resources.  This failure is particularly egregious since the agency knew there were cultural resources located in the Jeep Safari routes.  In fact, the agency knew there were over 100 cultural sites — including 42 sites eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places — as documented in a few sample inventories covering only 15% of the routes involved.  Inexplicably, the agency failed to take steps to protect these known resources prior to issuing its decision, and it failed to make a reasonable effort to identify unknown cultural resources on the remaining 85% of the routes.

The cultural resources found on public lands managed by the Moab BLM office constitute some of the most scenic and scientifically significant resources anywhere on the Colorado Plateau.  According to Jerry Spangler, Director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance:

The more than 6,000 documented archaeological sites in the Moab field office area constitute some of the most significant cultural resources in the state of Utah, including important evidence of the earliest human adaptations in North America, referred to as the Paleoindian and Archaic periods.  These sites are manifest in the form of spectacular painted rock art images and cave deposits with stratified layers of 12,000 years of the human experience. The Moab field office also has evidence of the transition from hunting and gathering (food procurement) to agriculture (food production) and the inherent implication that transition had for social and economic behavior, manifest by the abundant Ancestral Puebloan residences, granaries and rock art, and of later Ancestral Ute foragers. These sites are of tremendous cultural and spiritual significance to many different Native American tribes, and management decisions impacting these resources must reflect careful consideration of tribal interests.

Vehicle Access Increases Risk to Cultural Resources

Based on his years of fieldwork and extensive research, Mr. Spangler emphasizes:

Motor vehicle use may constitute the greatest threat to the long-term preservation of cultural resources on Utah’s pubic lands, including the Moab field office areas.  Off-road vehicles have greatly enhanced the ability of the public to gain access to cultural resources that have previously been protected by their isolation, lack of visibility or distance from a motor vehicle route.  Any damage to or destruction of archaeological sites is irreparable, and information contained at these sites, many of which are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, is being lost.

Each archaeological site represents a page from an unwritten book of our nation’s prehistory, with each site and artifact holding clues as to how the ancient societies that lived in this area rose and fell through time.  The BLM cannot manage resources it does not know exist, and decisions made without adequate information will inevitably result in adverse and unanticipated consequences to the integrity of historic treasures.