Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Future of the Past

There's something about unused land that seems to provoke an existential horror in certain types of people, as surely as it provokes spiritual or quasi-spiritual rapture in others. The Arizona Strip, which comprises five million desolate acres above the Grand Canyon, is one of the most undeveloped pieces of land left in the country. Now, the BLM is putting finishing touches on a four-year plan that would open it to virtually every sort of activity imaginable, from uranium mining, to cattle grazing, to oil and gas drilling, to virtually unrestricted off-road vehicle use.

Once again, as Marilynne Robinson observes, "we assert the sovereign privilege of destroying what we would go to any lengths to defend." A dirty bomb exploded in St. George, Utah would justify thermonuclear retaliation against the Middle Eastern country of one's choice. An equivalent amount of fallout in St. George, Utah is sound defense policy.

There are lots of problems with the BLM's scheme, but let's focus on one: the lack of archaeological and paleontological research in this region.

According to an article in the latest edition of Issues in Science and Technology, published by the National Academies and the University of Texas at Dallas, only 6% of the BLM's 260 million acres in the West have been surveyed for cultural resources. About 263,000 cultural sites have been found, according to the article, but archeologists estimate there are likely to be 4.5 million sites on BLM holdings....More than 97% of the land within the monuments has not been surveyed for archeological or paleontological sites, and according to a scientific study conducted last summer, 63% of the sites in Grand Canyon-Parashant are vulnerable to damage by off-road vehicle routes, as are nearly half the sites in the more remote Vermilion Cliffs monument.

"These archeological sites are a nonrenewable resource. Once they are gone, they are gone forever, " said Peter Bungart, a Flagstaff-based archeologist who conducted last year's monument surveys. "The silent history that's on that landscape is important, unless you argue that history is not important."
The Bush Administration would never argue that history is unimportant. On the contrary, they understand that it's far too important to be left to chance.

But the sort of history lying dormant in the Arizona Strip isn't worth revising or rewriting. There's nothing worth co-opting for ideological advantage, so there's nothing worth saving. (Some archaeological research may even be a threat to the New Age that authoritarianism invariably proclaims. According to the fascinating book Archaeology Under Dictatorship, Stalin actually murdered or enslaved 85% of Russian archaeologists in the early 1930s.)

The BLM assures us that neither mining nor ORVs nor grazing will harm the area in any really meaningful way. Their own site on Arizona Strip petroglyphs, however, tells a somewhat different story:
Please remember to leave only footprints, leave all artifacts in place and report any vandalism you witness....Remember - This site is yours to share and appreciate, but once it's gone, it's gone forever.
It's interesting to think about the point at which "reporting vandalism" stops being good citizenship, and starts being America-hating extremism.

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