Site stewards protect history
May 29, 2012, noon
By Marsha Kearns
Two men walk to a small rise in the expanse of low, scrub-covered lands in the southeastern Utah desert. They check their map of the district, which may or may not be entirely accurate. They are there to monitor cultural resources within a national historic landmark encompassing 2,200 acres that holds over 100 known ruins from a community of ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi).
Larry Boyce, 71, and Jim Kearns, 58, are site stewards for the Utah Site Steward Program, funded by the Bureau of Land Management. There are also site steward programs in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. The programs are a private-public partnership designed to help protect cultural resources likely to be subject to high visitation rates, making them prime areas for vandalism, pot hunting, erosion, or overuse by livestock.
“If each visitor takes just one shard of pottery, soon the land will be barren of the remnants of these ancient civilizations and future visitors, and BLM archaeologists will be deprived of the opportunity to experience a time long past and learn from these artifacts,” Boyce said.
The people who used to inhabit the Four Corners area lived there for hundreds of years. This extended community is important historically because it establishes a critical link between the Basketmaker people, who are identified primarily for their use of baskets, and the Puebloans. These indications suggest they were the same evolving culture.
“I’m not superstitious, but as a long-time student of anthropology, in particular, the ways in which the human mind has been shaped by ancient civilizations, I get a strong emotional sense of connection while walking among the ruins of this early culture,” Boyce said.
The BLM and National Park Service are not adequately funded to provide oversight of the thousands of ancient ruins in San Juan County, Utah, alone, so they depend heavily on the volunteer services of site stewards. The volunteers typically visit their assigned sites two or three times a year and report back any changes or intrusions to the BLM.
Site stewards are the eyes and ears of the BLM, performing educational duties by informing visitors of the sensitive nature of the sites they are charged to monitor.
The curator at the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding told Boyce about a national historic landmark established in 1964, which they had tried to get designated as a district, and she asked him to look into it. In the process, Boyce learned that the area had been designated a national historic landmark district in 1985. Nobody had been notified. He saw the value of protecting this area, talked to the site steward coordinator, and opted into the program. He then enlisted the help of his friend, Kearns. The two have been tag-teaming the 2,200-acre area since 2010.
“I’m interested in history, and being a site steward provides me a direct connection to a culture that inhabited the southwest before the Europeans,” Kearns said. “In perspective, these ancient cultures lasted for thousands of years. Europeans looked upon this land as uninhabitable. It’s fun and exciting to discover how wrong they were.”
There is an ongoing need for site stewards. Site stewards are provided training, professional advice from BLM and archaeologists, and workshops on basic archaeology.
“It’s fun to speculate the reasons people chose this inhospitable area to live,” Kearns said. “Were they protecting their water supply, the springs and seeps that aren’t readily apparent? Was it a last gasp attempt at surviving before they had to give up the land and leave? We may never know for sure.”
For information on the Utah Site Steward program, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn about site stewardship in Grand Junction, visit www.voc.org/grandjunction, where you can sign up for the next training in November.