There was a time when southeastern Utah's ancient Anasazi ruins were not much more than a local curiosity. But that is fast changing.
In recent years, a surprising number of national publications, including Backpacker Magazine, Arizona Highways, 4-Wheeler and Off-Road magazines, have focused on the pristine condition - and isolation - of Utah's Indian ruins."Visitation at Canyonlands is rising by 10 percent a year," said Canyonlands National Park archaeologist Chas Cartwright. "And in the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands, the growth is probably greater."
People in record numbers are flooding into southern Utah's mountains and canyons, most of them searching for glimpses of long-lost Anasazi ruins. Those growing numbers are causing tremendous and irreversible damage to Utah's cultural resources.
For the most part, visitors to Utah's Indian ruins are not vandals or pot hunters. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Cartwright says visitors to southern Utah are literally "loving the ruins to death." The damage is done by people who really care about the ruins," he said. "They don't realize you shouldn't walk on the walls or pick up artifacts. You should only stick to trails."
This is particularly evident in the Grand Gulch Primitive Area - one of the nation's richest concentrations of archaeological ruins, scientists say.
"Almost everywhere you go there is more damage done by people who love the ruins, but who don't realize the damage they are causing or don't know how to enjoy the sites without damaging them. It's not intentional," said Cartwright.
The damage is the result of the cumulative effect of growing numbers of visitors. Where one person could walk on a ruin wall and not cause significant damage, 2,000 people walking on the same wall over the course of a year can cause the wall to deteriorate and collapse.
"These ruins are not resilient," Cartwright said.
Most people don't realize it is against federal law to pick up artifacts, but thousands of artifacts are collected from federal lands every year.
"People have been picking up artifacts for so long there's not much left on top of the ground," Cartwright said. "There is still a mentality that, `If I don't pick it up someone else will.' That may be true, but it perpetuates the problem."
Visitors also don't realize the damage that occurs by camping in or next to ruins, or walking over and through ancient garbage dumps. Not only does site trampling cause damage to subsurface artifacts, but it results in erosion that can undermine the foundations of prehistoric structures.
"We are losing a substantial amount of cultural deposits from people walking where they shouldn't," said Cartwright. "And archaeologists who should know better are as guilty as anyone."
Southern Utah is one of only a handful of areas nationally where people can find ancient ruins in their pristine condition and artifacts - arrow heads, pottery shards and food and clothing remnants - lying about the ground.
That abundance, as well as the isolation of Utah's ruins, has made southern Utah a world class attraction. And tens of thousands of visitors are taking to Utah's back country as a result.
"Utah isn't like other states where the sites have been hardened to handle large numbers of visitors," Cartwright said. "Southern Utah is a virtual outdoor museum, a back country park."
But Cartwright fears that status may change as Utah's ruins crumble. Other states have already taken to closing particularly rich areas to the public. Instead, they funnel visitors to those high-profile ruins that have been stabilized and hardened.
In Utah's national parks, rangers are reticent to reveal the location of certain sites. At Canyonlands National Park - one of the richest archaeological parks in the nation - a disclosure policy places sites in three categories: Those visited by the majority of park visitors; those that rangers will refer to those who appear sensitive to archaeological concerns; and those that are not routinely revealed to the public.
The greatest portion of Canyonlands sites fall into the latter category.
Cartwright recognizes the absolute necessity of protecting those sites by not routinely revealing their locations. To openly tout their location is to invite wholesale destruction - intentional or not.
If Utah intends to preserve Anasazi ruins for future generations, Cartwright says a greater emphasis must be placed on education. "How can people know better if we don't tell them?" Cartwright said. "And we haven't done a very good job of telling them.
"If we want this high-quality experience to be available for future generations, we have to make people sensitive to the fragile nature of walls and rock art and the other cultural resources. We need to teach people to walk lightly and walk away with the site in the same condition as when they arrived."