Written by Andy Laurenzi
This summer, archaeologists Saul Hedquist and Leigh Anne Ellison were hired by the Center for Desert Archaeology to conduct site damage and condition assessments of ninety-six prehistoric sites in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. The project received funding support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other environmental partners and was done in cooperation with the forest. Our goal was to create a knowledge base that would enable the funding partners to more effectively participate in upcoming travel management and forest planning discussions.
Most of the assessed sites are significant habitation sites dating between A.D. 600 and 1400. These sites include prominent architectural features such as roomblocks and platform mounds. As such, most are listed on the National Register of Historic Places or are register-eligible. Likewise, the Tonto National Forest designates many of them as Priority Heritage Assets. Unfortunately, their size and visibility also make these sites more attractive to human visitors—and, by extension, more vulnerable to vandalism and damage from recreational uses.
Adverse effects related to human activity were evident at 90% of the assessed sites. Although most of the observed damage was decades old, more recent damage—within the past five years—was encountered at 15 sites. Fourteen of those are located within 500 meters of a Forest Service (FS) road. In general, sites located further from FS roads were found in better condition than those nearer to roads.
Although the factors influencing site damage and overall condition are complex and particular to each site, our data indicats that when a road open to motorized vehicle use is near a site, it can facilitate damage in two ways. First, it increases the likelihood that a vehicle traveling off-road will encounter a site and impact it (e.g., tire damage). Second, looters gain easier and faster access to a site.
These findings are consistent with recent studies on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Our findings also suggest that public land managers should strongly consider closing roads to motorized use if those roads provide easy access to these types of cultural resources.
Interestingly, prominent signage indicating penalties for violating the Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA) may be helpful. ARPA signs were observed at 14 sites, most of which were located near regularly used FS roads. Only one signed site had sustained recent damage. Monitoring of road-accessible sites by site stewards should constitute another effective measure—indeed, we already know the important role these dedicated volunteers play in managing cultural resources on public lands.
Andy Laurenzi is a field representative for the Center for Desert Archaeology in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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