It was a last resort, says Moab archaeologist Bruce Louthan. "We had hoped the state would take it upon itself to do the job."
But state officials wouldn't, so the Utah Professional Archaeological Council and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance have gone to court to force the Division of State Lands to protect the thousands upon thousands of Indian ruins on state lands across the state."We are simply forcing the state to deal with the cultural resources on state land," said Louthan, president of UPAC. "We've tried to get them to do it for 10 years and they've ignored the fact that those resources even exist or should be considered."
Archaeologists and conservationists have threatened for months to sue the state over what they say is "gross mismanagement" of state lands without consideration for historical and cultural resources contained on those lands.
Ken Rait, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the two primary focuses of the lawsuit deal with state officials failing to develop a master management plan for state lands and failing to protect the cultural resources on those lands.
"That could weigh heavily when it comes time to trade parcels of state land for federal lands," Rait said. "The feds are reluctant to trade when the state is inept at protecting its own resources, knowing the resources on the federal lands would not be protected after the transfer."
In fact, most land exchanges between the federal government and the state have been halted for the last two years, due primarily to the failure of the Division of State Lands to protect cultural resources.
Richard Mitchell, director of the division and a target of the suit, had no comment.
Louthan and Rait say the agency should be surveying its properties and determining what kind of cultural resources exist so they can be considered in the event of trade or sale. Management plans and laws protecting the resources are standard requirements of most state agencies and all federal agencies.
But the Division of State Lands ignores existing state law protecting cultural resources, the lawsuit says.
"We've been aggrieved about a number of state land sales, that there is no public input in the process," Rait added. "The state has failed to plan in almost every instance they have sold land, and they simply do not protect cultural resources. They have an odd way of protecting the resources in that they sell them."
Ironically, both Louthan and Rait say the state agency does not consider the literal value of prehistoric artifacts in the sale of property, despite the fact that artifacts such as pottery and baskets bring huge prices at antiquities auctions.
"Those assets are simply given away for free, without consideration of value," Rait said.
Louthan said no one is advocating the state sell prehistoric artifacts to raise money for the school trust fund.
Specifically, the lawsuit seeks an injunction against the sale of state land in Cottonwood Canyon near Moab. That sale was chosen not because it is particularly troublesome, but because it symbolizes the problem statewide.
Prior to the Cottonwood sale, Louthan said the Bureau of Land Management warned the state the property contained numerous important archaeological sites. Yet the Division of State Lands sold the property without consideration for the literal and cultural value of those sites, the suit says.
"The issue is long-term values versus short-term gain," Louthan said.
The Division of State Lands has traditionally held that school trust sections are not public lands. Rather, they are lands held in trust for Utah schoolchildren with the mandate they be used to raise revenue for Utah schools. Because cultural resources are not perceived as having any dollar value, they are not considered in any sale.
The lawsuit names as plaintiffs four Utah schoolchildren.