Friday, September 24, 2010

Don't Look! Don't Touch! These are for You!

Not for nothing did cynical employees of the BLM give it the nickname,  "Bureau of Lousy Management."

Foremost among the not-so-wonderful agencies managing our federal public lands, the BLM tends to meet its multi-use mandate through addled non-logic.

It preserves antiquities for us by hiding them from us.  Now this bizarre policy has struck close to home.

For years, a dedicated group of conservationists, apolitical and indefatigable, have fought to protect a special place in the Robledo Mountains outside Las Cruces, NM.  It is a lovely place to hike and explore.  One day more than 20 years ago, a hiker and explorer named Jerry McDonald, a graduate student at New Mexico State University. made a discovery that he instinctively knew was important, even though he was not a geologist or archeologist.

Animal footprints, made hundreds of thousands of years before dinosaurs existed, had been preserved by an accident of nature in red sandstone layers of the rock that formed the Robledos next to what once was a primeval sea.  McDonald's instinctive appreciation of their value soon was at odds with the politics, petty jealousies and intense competition for funding among the esoteric sciences.

While museum curators, academics and politicians prattled, vandals and off-road terrorists savaged the initial site.  Flash floods added to the damage.  A nearby quarry scooped up some of the  priceless footprints and their fragments wound up  in tile floors, chimneys and garden walls of the Mesilla Valley.

McDonald persisted and so did the conservationists.  Finally the pols got the message and passed legislation creating the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument. The 5,280-acre monument was established, according to the BLM website, "to conserve, protect, and enhance the unique and nationally important paleontological, scientific, educational, scenic, and recreational resources and values."

And how, pray, does the BLM "protect" the area's most spectacular "paleontological, scientific, educational and scenic" resource, the paleozoic trackways themselves? By excavating them and carting them off to a museum 200 miles away in Albuquerque, where they are kept under lock and key, to be viewed only by those whose applications for a reservation are approved by the bureaucracy!

Many of us who rallied behind McDonald and the friends of the Paleozoic trackways assumed (wrongly) that national monument status would require the BLM to preserve these resources in situ.  They didn't pack up Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl (did they?) and truck it off to a locked warehouse in Denver, leaving Chaco Canyon to serve as a race track for ORV cowboys.

For years, it has been a ritual in our family that visitors would join us on the hike up a nearby arroyo to the "discovery site" where McDonald first found animal footprints.  We would scavenge the vandalized site for hours, shrieking  with delight when we found a single print, or an exotic marine fossil.  Without exception, our visitors experienced a special joy in making contact with creatures that had walked the very land under their feet millions of years ago.  However fine the samples hidden away in Albuquerque might be, viewing them there pales beside the adventure of finding them in situ.

Those of us who enjoy walking the beautiful canyons of the American southwest in search of the legacy of the Anasazi, Mogollan, Freemont and other early American builders and artisans have long become accustomed to the BLM's ethic of protecting antiquities  for us by hiding them from us. Cliff house ruins aren't on the maps.  There are no signs pointing to them. But at least the rock houses, potsherds, arrowheads, petroglyphs and climbing niches remain where their creators put them.  If you're lucky enough to find one, you can appreciate how those first inhabitants of the west lived and learned and manifested their knowledge of their world.  You don't have to request a reservation at some far away museum to see them.

Last time my son and I set out to walk up the arroyo to Jerry McDonald's "discovery site," the access was closed off.  No signs identified the national monument; it could just as well have been another piece of trash-littered southwestern desert. We decided to drive on out to Broad Canyon, to look for petroglyphs.  We didn't know that behind the locked gate they were taking away the very reasons for having a national monument in the first place, and stashing them in a crypt in Albuquerque, far from the eyes of those who battled to preserve them.

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