Folks in southeastern Utah have never been bosom buddies with their Uncle Sam, and a new controversy over who should keep local Indian artifacts could widen the rift.
Many Utahns are fighting mad over new federal guidelines that could result in all southeastern Utah artifacts found on federal lands being transferred to a state-of-the-art federal repository in Dolores, Colo.Utah authorities and the Bureau of Land Management are in the early stages of what threatens to become a political tug-of-war over who should keep Utah artifacts: Utah museums or the federal repository.
"If they try to take them to Colorado, I'll fight it with everything I have," said San Juan County Commissioner Cal Black. "A lot of people down here sacrificed a lot to keep Utah's archaeological treasures in the area. And we're are not going to sit back and let the federal government haul them to Colorado."
Many Utahns are furious the federal government would even suggest transferring Utah artifacts to Colorado. But to stop it, Utah authorities will have to exert more than political pressure - they will have to spend large sums of money to upgrade state museums.
City, county and state authorities are discussing what measures the state must take to prevent such transfers. The state may have to spend as much as $1.5 million to improve an existing museum in Blanding to meet federal repository and curatorial guidelines.
"I think the BLM in Utah would like to keep Utah artifacts in Utah," said Winston Hurst, curator of the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding. "But we can't expect all American taxpayers to build a repository in Utah just because Utah wants one on this side of the state line."
He said considering the federal government's recent investment in its Colorado facility, it only makes sense - from a fiscal standpoint - to use it rather than spending more money on duplicate repositories in other states.
The price of keeping Utah artifacts in the state would include expanding the size, quality and staff of Edge of the Cedars. Better storage and researchspace would have to be added, along with better environmental controls, fire-suppression systems and security.
"We've been conducting studies to see what we have to do to pull our standards up to federal acceptability," said Hurst.
The perceived threat that federal agencies would send Utah artifacts out of state has provoked southeastern Utahns.
"Most people down here feel it's just another example of the feds looting our resources, another example of colonial exploitation of the local people and their values," said Black.
"We're not politically stupid enough to move stuff to Dolores just to tweak them," said Bruce Louthan, Moab district archaeologist for the BLM. "Local people have a legitimate interest in seeing locally discovered artifacts, and we would like to have local museums curate those artifacts so the public has access to them. We're in sympathy with that."
At the core of the dispute is the just-completed Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, Colo. _ a $5 million federal repository designed to store and process archaeological artifacts from the Four Corners states. The BLM inherited the responsibility for the center.
What bothers many Utahns is the concept of a regional federal repository was conceived and executed very quietly without any input from Utah or other Four Corners states. No public hearings on the idea were held.
With millions of dollars now invested in the Dolores facility, there is political pressure on BLM offices in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to use it.
The Edge of the Cedars Museum was authorized by the Legislature in 1974 for the very purpose of housing Anasazi artifacts in southeastern Utah where they were discovered. Local residents and the Utah Navajo Development Council also contributed substantially to the project.
The museum was built with the understanding the federal government supported the idea, and payment for storing and processing artifacts was never discussed at the time. Since 1980, the BLM has routinely shipped artifacts to the museum.
To this point, Utah has held federal artifacts for free as a service to the federal government. Because of the new federal guidelines, as well as the cost of caring for the artifacts, Utah museums and others across the country are now asking the federal government to help pay for its own artifacts.
Could the federal government pick up the cost of upgrading Edge of the Cedars Museum to process and care for federal artifacts?
"The BLM has come back to us and said it looks like they will be forced to use the Anasazi Heritage Center because of their large investment," said Hurst. "They just couldn't justify spending big bucks to bring Edge of the Cedars up to snuff. If Utahns want to keep Utah artifacts in Utah, then Utah taxpayers will have to carry the freight."
"We would like to give the state funds for curation," said Louthan, "but it's hard to justify the expense to Washington. It's easier for them to tell us to take (the artifacts) to Dolores."
In preliminary discussions with state and local leaders, state parks officials (who manage Edge of the Cedars) have received overwhelming support from government leaders that Utah government will do whatever it takes to keep Utah artifacts in the state.
Recent resolutions by the Southeast Association of Governments have repeatedly reinforced the region's solidarity in connection with the controversy.
"The BLM doesn't want to get embroiled in a political controversy if they can help it," said Hurst. "They are sensitive to the political issues involved. If we can satisfy their minimal requirements, they will be delighted to keep artifacts here."
Hurst believes the money can be found to upgrade Edge of the Cedars to meet federal standards. But the problem will be staffing. Currently, there is only one employee assigned to the museum full time, and he is responsible for all artifact processing, care and excavation of the on-site ruins, and interpretation of the museum exhibits.
"It's ludicrous the amount of time and money that is spent now versus our responsibilities," said Hurst. And with a larger facility, the staffing crisis will get worse.
"The point we have to emphasize over and over is we all are in favor of local curation," Hurst said, "but we have to understand the financial commitment it entails. If we cannot afford it, we cannot ethically oppose it (transfer of artifacts to the Anasazi Heritage Center)."