Appalling act of vandalism on our nations public lands

(This story is a few days old, so many of you may have already read it, but I could not let this event happen without posting about it.)

On Halloween this year, the BLM received a very unsettling call – while hiking in the Volcanic Tableland area near Bishop, California, visitors had discovered that many 3500(+) year old petroglyphs had been vandalized. This was not your “usual” act of vandalism seen on public land – where people etch or paint on the petroglyphs.  In this case, the felons physically stole four petroglyphs by hacking them away (with power saws that required generators!) from the rock face.  During the theft, the perpetrators also defaced an additional petroglyphs with saw marks, broke a removed petroglyph in the process of stealing it, and scarred many others with hammer strikes.  According to BLM, archaeologists this is the worst act of vandalism seen on any BLM land.

The primitive artists–Paviotso. Edward S. Curtis. Library of Congress.

The petroglyphs in the Volcanic Tableland area were carved by ancient hunters and gathers from which the Paiute-Shoshone tribal members descend. The petroglyphs are still used today in spiritual ceremonies. Elders of the Paiute tribe are appalled at this act of vandalism. Recently the Volcanic Tableland area was added to the National Register of Historic Places and such petroglyphs are protected under the Archaeological Resource Protection Act. The damage or removal of articles protected under this federal act can lead to up to 5 yrs in prison and a $100,000 fine (for second time offenders, less for first time offenders).

Depreciative behavior, such as theft, in public lands is usually managed using direct, negative reinforcement such as fines and jail time. However, in order for these law enforcement-based management techniques to be most effective there needs to be a law enforcement (or the appearance of a person of authority) to police the site.  The BLM (and most federal agencies) does not have the staff or resources to monitor all sites that contain petroglyphs.  Other management options include keeping the location of sacred resources secret (very hard to do), encourage stewardship through education (less effective and delayed results), or increase monitoring of the sites.

Sign showing the fine for writing on rocks near petroglyphs in Canyonlands National Park (photo by Ashley D)

For the moment, the BLM has planned to employ various management techniques.  BLM managers will work with Native American to create signs which will be placed below each defaced petroglyph. The signs will educate visitors about the spiritual nature of the petroglyphs and describe how the individuals responsible for the theft are “malicious, selfish individuals.”  Volunteers have begun policing the area on their own to increase survallience and protect the remaining petroglyphs. Finally, a fund has established to raise money to help recover the stolen petroglyphs, train volunteers, fund interpretative programs aimed at educating the public how the theft has damaged the area, and to pay for surveillance cameras which will be used to police the area.

Currently the BLM and the Pauite tribe are offering a $2,000 reward for information leading the the arrest and conviction of the thieves  Anyone with information can contact Melody Stehwien at 760-937-0301, or Eric Keefer at 760-937-0657, both at the BLM Bishop Field Office.

For more information:

Initial story about the theft from the LA Times.

Article about donations fund.



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