Bureau of Land Management officials have imposed a temporary moratorium on transfers of some federal land to state ownership until the state enacts adequate regulations protecting archaeological resources on those parcels.
"We are not going to process any more exchanges until we can work out a protection agreement," said Craig Harmon, chief archaeologist in Utah for the BLM.Harmon's comments mirror those of BLM state director James M. Parker, who wrote state officials of "past threats of litigation, administrative protests and expressions of public concern regarding such transfers. These considerations, in concert with our legal mandate to manage and protect these resources, have resulted in our decision to delay transfers."
Parker further indicated that land transfers will be delayed until the state has a process in place to mitigate damages to cultural resources. "We feel obligated to take such a step . . . to avoid costly litigation which might shut down the whole program," he said.
Officials say the land transfer delays apply only to those land exchanges involving parcels with archaeological resources, not the entire land exchange program. But if an agreement is not worked out on that key issue, it could affect the entire program.
Federal officials, along with Utah archaeologists, are angry over the recent destruction of two significant prehistorical sites in Washington County and the impending destruction of a third. They were destroyed by private developers on a parcel of land first traded by the BLM to the state and then later transferred to a private developer.
A BLM official who questioned the destruction was told by a state lands official that "the mandate to maximize economic returns on state land outweighed resource concerns."
"That concerns us greatly," said Harmon.
Pat Spurgin, director of the Division of State Lands and Forestry, said the state is caught in the middle between trying to maximize the economic return of state-managed parcels and the various laws protecting antiquities.
"Cultural resources by their very nature are not of such value that they produce revenue to the School Trust" as mandated by law, he said. "Our responsibility is to generate revenue . . . but we also recognize we have to try to balance that with the state's present cultural resource protection laws."
The state currently takes cultural resources into consideration when discussing various land-use proposals for state land, said Spurgin. In many cases, the private developers are willing to pay for those costs.
The problem arises when the state tries to sell or lease a parcel of land at market value, but "If we pass those costs on to the buyers, it makes state lands less attractive economically," Spurgin said.
However, the BLM is mandated by federal law to protect all archaeological sites from damage or destruction. If transferring federal land to state control means those sites would not be protected, BLM archaeologists say the federal protection laws would require the BLM to retain ownership of the lands.
Parker said past land transfers were done with the understanding that sufficient safeguards were in place. But recent events in Washington County have prompted the BLM "to re-evaluate our position on land transfers to the state."
There is particular concern over a pending land transfer involving 6,000 acres on the Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah - an area described by many as the richest archaeological district anywhere in America. Archaeologists shudder at the thought such resources would be transferred to state ownership with no adequate protection guarantees in place.
BLM officials say there are numerous problems with Utah's protection law, including legal wording, implementation measures and jurisdictional questions. "It's a piece of paper and not much more," Harmon said.