Scattered around the shores of Utah Lake are the remains of a once-large prehistoric population that thrived on a seemingly limitless supply of fish and water fowl.
But today, tire tracks cut through what were once small villages, and holes have been dug into what were once homes."The sites have been trashed. Absolutely trashed," said Joel Janetski, a Brigham Young University archaeologist who has researched the prehistoric people who once resided around Utah Lake.
"And it's clearly against the law."
It's against the law to vandalize prehistoric sites on state land. And it's also against the law to use off-highway vehicles in the area - the vehicles vandals are using to get to the sites on the Utah Lake shoreline.
But Utah County judges have refused to impose fines, and now the Utah Department of Parks and Recreation says it no longer will issue citations for violation of the state's off-highway vehicle law around Utah Lake.
"Right now, we just check their registration, explain the law and ask them to leave," said Chris Miller, a Utah Lake State Park ranger. "No more citations."
That, says Janetski, is tantamount to a state-sanctioned invitation for further abuse of Utah Lake's fragile prehistoric record that already is being destroyed at an alarming rate.
Utah law states that all land exposed below the high-water mark of the lake is state land. And Utah law also states that off-highway vehicles can be driven only on lands that are posted "open."
"The law is backwards from what most people think it is," Miller said. "They think it should be posted `no trespassing' if it is closed."
Park rangers were issuing citations, but justices of the peace sided with the violators, either dismissing the charges or refusing to impose fines because the land was not posted "closed."
The problem is a direct result of the ongoing drought in Utah County. As the lake level recedes, more and more prehistoric Indian sites are exposed, the lapping waves causing erosion and exposing artifacts and human bones to view.
The same thing is happening around the shorelines of other lakes in Utah, especially the Great Salt Lake where more than 70 ancient burials have been recovered this year.
While the Legislature appropriated more than $50,000 to deal with the problem on the Great Salt Lake, little is being done to protect the ancient sites around Utah Lake, archaeologists say.
Janetski and several BYU students have been trying to salvage information from some of the vandalized sites. But as more and more shoreline is exposed, more and more vandalism - intentional and unintentional - is occurring on the same lands where Utah law prohibits off-highway vehicles.
"You can see where they ride their OHVs right through the sites, throwing mud and dirt everywhere," Janetski said. "They are out there having a good time and they are doing it right over the top of the sites, sometimes getting stuck right in the sites. They are doing a tremendous amount of damage."
Worse, relic hunters are deliberately using the low water levels to gain access to previously inaccessible sites, scavenging them for pottery, bones, arrowheads and other artifacts. And they are returning time and again, digging through the sites.
"Most of the intentional vandalism is taking place at night," Miller said. "We've seen evidence of up to four vehicles stuck in the mud during the night." He adds that those few people who "know the artifacts are there also know they should be left alone, and they are going in at night when they are less visible."
But Janetski also is concerned about the "recreational" OHV users riding the shorelines who notice artifacts and then take them home. And he adds that both State Parks and the Division of State Lands have a legal responsibility to protect the sites from both kinds of vandals.
Hundreds of Indians once made their homes around Utah Lake. And because it is one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi River, Janetski believes it was also home to one the heaviest concentrations of prehistoric peoples living anywhere in the Great Basin.
Not only did the lake provide plenty of fish and water fowl, but the valley would have been a good wintering area for game, and wild and domesticated plants likely thrived in the lake shore environment.
The ancient inhabitants left behind scores of mounds where their homes and other structures once stood. But because of later settlement in Utah Valley by Mormon pioneers, most of the mounds were destroyed.
The sites which have survived have been those closest to the constantly fluctuating shoreline.
In the 1930s, Utah Lake shrunk to almost nothing, exposing many Indian sites and fueling local traditions of artifact collecting. It's a tradition that has continued unabated despite various attempts to enforce Utah antiquity laws.
"It's the only lake of its kind with an array of resources not found anywhere else," Janetski said. "It was such a good place to live prehistorically, yet the archaeology is poorly understood. And now it is being destroyed and the state is unwilling or unable to enforce its existing laws."