'Treasure' ex-owner a thorn in state's side

Published: Sunday, Feb. 25 2007 12:07 a.m. MST

Waldo Wilcox, who used to own a ranch in Utah's Book Cliffs that contained ancient Indian sites and artifacts, now is wrangling with the state over the area's preservation.

Ray Boren, Deseret Morning News

GREEN RIVER — Seventy-six-year-old Waldo Wilcox is the celebrity curmudgeon of eastern Utah — a man who sold his remote 4,200-acre spread to the state in 2001 for $2.5 million and revealed to the world a treasure trove of hundreds of largely undisturbed ancient Indian sites.

But the outspoken rancher has become something of a nuisance to the new stewards, as he freely expresses his concerns over their management, vandalism by others, artifact removal, dusty roads and dried-out fields.

"They was always bragging about their educations," Wilcox says. "But I was always having to straighten them out."

To keep Wilcox away from his former ranch, the state has locked the big metal gates on the Range Creek Canyon cattle ranch that he ran for 50 years.

"If they don't want me there, it's their right," Wilcox says of state officials and archaeologists. "They bought it. When I owned it, I changed the locks to keep people out, too."

When the state acquired Range Creek, its pit houses and abundant artifacts of the Fremont civilization made archaeologists and wildlife managers giddy. The ranch is also prime hunting grounds for bighorn sheep, elk and mountain lions.

The state archaeologist, Kevin Jones, gushed that he felt like "the luckiest archaeologist alive. It is a phenomenal research opportunity," he said. "It's a national treasure."

But Wilcox thought the artifacts would stay in their canyon home. Many now reside in the Utah Museum of Natural History. And some things have just disappeared, he said.

Archaeologist Jerry Spangler, working with the University of Utah research team, is studying vandalism in the canyon. He said that since the land transfer, there have been two documented cases of missing artifacts and two of ground disturbance — one a full-blown looter's hole in the middle of a pit house.

The objects removed by the state — a tiny percentage of those found — were either so unusual they warranted laboratory analysis or were at risk of theft because they lay near the road, Spangler said.

The university's archaeological team so far has done no excavating — only mapping, tree-ring dating and recording of 367 surface sites, leader Duncan Metcalfe said. He said he hopes to begin excavation in summer.

Wilcox says the road along the canyon floor is now torn up and dusty in summer. Spider webs of new foot trails are appearing around sites.

The new landowner, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, has stopped irrigating and grazing the fields, so the grasses are overgrown and dried out.

Derris Jones, Wildlife Resources' regional supervisor, said the state irrigates what it can with water rights for only 29 acres.

The state had kept Range Creek a secret until a small local newspaper, the Emery County Progress, began describing its wonders in the summer of 2004.

Wilcox, who knew well the nooks and crannies of his 12-mile-long piece of Range Creek Canyon, was both the invaluable guide to researchers and the colorful codger the public clamored to meet.

He was hailed as a great preservationist for guarding against looters and never digging up the remnants of the Fremonts, contemporaries of the Anasazi who also had largely left the area by about A.D. 1300.

Kevin Jones noted the irony that reams of laws couldn't have protected Range Creek's riches as well as a single, armed rancher.

"Waldo did keep good care of the place for a long time, and he deserves the credit," Jones said.

But the blunt-spoken retired rancher also can make scientists and bureaucrats grimace. When he accompanied state officials to meet officials of the Hopi Tribe, which along with several others claim cultural affiliation to the Fremont, the state official made him promise not to say two words: "squaw and hippie."

By 2005, the tension was flowing in many directions. Big-game hunters, the Northern Utes and other tribes, archaeologists, assorted bureaucrats and Wilcox all had their own ideas about how the place should be managed.

"These archaeologists are all a bunch of long-haired hippies," Wilcox says, his blue eyes peering through wire-rimmed glasses at one of the spurs he makes at his small Green River home. "Having them in there with the Indian stuff is like locking the fox in with the chickens."

Still, Wilcox admits he's impossible to please: "I'm like anyone who sells out. They could gold-plate the place and I wouldn't be happy with what they done."

Last summer, the lock on the gate changed, and Wilcox, who had been free to come and go, didn't get a key.

Derris Jones admits he feels "kind of bad about that," but Wildlife Resources needed tight control over access.

"Waldo's always welcome," he said. "He just needs to let us know."

Wilcox swears there is another place as filled with cultural artifacts as his old home.

"I do know one more place like Range Creek," he says. "But I'm not going to tell anybody where it is."

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