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Preserving History on Public Lands

Randal A. Griffin, BLM Ranger

I have read and am knowledgeable with the events and facts included within the article, “Transcontinental Transgression” by Mike and Anthony Eiting. Based on my knowledge of the events related in this article, I can say that they are accurate, true, and represent the facts as they occurred. With that in mind, I would like to take this opportunity to pass on to the members of ICON, through this forum, some information that may prevent other members from making these same mistakes.

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) of 1976, protects cultural and historical sites and artifacts located on all federal (hereafter referred to as “public lands”) and tribal lands located within the United States. The agencies who manage these public lands include agencies within the U.S. Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Defense. Examples of the agencies within these departments include, but are not limited to the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

ARPA protects those archaeological resources located on public lands that are the material remains of past human life or activities that are at least 100 years old, and are of “archaeological interest”. These material remains that are of “archaeological interest” are classified into 10 categories. These categories include, but are not limited to, surface or subsurface structures, shelters, or features, and whole or fragmentary tools, implements, containers, weapons, weapon projectiles, clothing and ornaments. Examples of structures would include, but not limited to, telegraph lines and their parts (including glass insulators, poles, and cross ties) as well as railroad grades and their parts. Examples of tools, implements, and containers would include, but not limited to, railroad spikes, fish plates, rails, ties, bottles, and many more items to numerous to mention in this article. Other federal and state laws protect these same archaeological resources, regardless of age or type, on both federal and state lands, and the illegal removal of these resources would be considered theft of government property.

Under ARPA, no person may excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface, or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any archaeological resource located on protected public lands, unless such activity is pursuant to a permit issued within the guidelines of the act. No person may sell, purchase, exchange, transport, or receive any archaeological resource, from public lands if such resource was excavated or removed in violation of the previous section. A person convicted of one of the prohibited acts under ARPA can be punished for a violation of this act by a fine of not more than $10,000.00 or imprisoned more than one year or both (a misdemeanor). However, if the value of the archaeological resource and the cost of the repair and restoration of the resource exceeds the sum of $500.00, the violator shall be fined not more than $20,000.00 or imprisoned more than 2 years or both (a felony).

As you can see, the dollar amount to reach the felony threshold is quite low. Even though the value of an archaeological resource taken in violation of this act may not reach this level, the cost of restoration and repair of a site or resource is also taken into consideration. It does not take long for the costs of restoration and repair to very quickly meet this $500.00 threshold. Based upon my knowledge of the this case, the value of the objects that were removed from public lands would have easily met this $500.00 threshold, even without the cost of restoration and repair factored in. Restoration can include the curation costs of an artifact once it has been recovered and determined to have been removed from public lands in violation of ARPA.

So that other insulator collectors do not fall into this same predicament, there are some simple rules that should be followed while pursuing this hobby. The first rule is to make sure that you have a legal right to be where you are collecting and that you have a legal right to possess what you are collecting.

All person(s), with a few exceptions, have a legal right to enter and remain on most public lands. If you are collecting anything on public lands, you may do so only with a permit, or in some cases, depending on what you are collecting, you may collect those objects without a permit. Collecting without a permit is deemed to be casual use and limited to small amounts of the items being collecting. This type of collecting usually involves edible plants, rock specimens, and small amounts of petrified wood, to name a few. Archaeological resources as those defined previously, however, can never be collected without a permit, and sometimes not even with a permit. Some public lands, such as those administered by the National Park Service, as well as other federal agencies, do not permit the removal of any objects from those lands, even if it is casual use.

Private lands are a different story. If you are on private lands, you need to have the permission of the landowner to be there. If you are collecting anything from private lands, you also have to have permission of the landowner to possess what you are collecting, and/or to remove it from private lands. If you do not have this permission, or right, then removing objects from private lands constitutes theft and can result in you being prosecuted. You will most likely stay out of trouble if you have that permission in writing stating your privilege to be where you are doing what you are doing and have that written permission in your possession on these occasions. If you collect anything, you would be best to keep the written documentation with whatever you collect. You may need it, for instance, if you were ever to sell, purchase, exchange, transport, or receive such materials. Remember that ARPA prohibits all of the above acts with archaeological materials if they are illegally obtained from public lands.

The second rule is to never assume that when you are visiting areas within the western United States where there are large tracts of private or public lands, that all of the land in those areas is privately or federally owned. Private lands can exist within large or small tracts of federal lands and vice versa. Certain rights-of-ways (ROW) across public or formerly public lands may be considered public or private property depending on how that ROW was deeded to the private landowner or entity. A good example of this type of ROW is a railroad. Railroads crossing public lands typically do so involving a ROW that was obtained by the railroad from the federal government. As railroad ROW’s can be many years old, the land they cross may have been public when the ROW was granted. Each ROW is different and in some cases the land within the ROW was exclusively deeded to a particular entity making that ROW private property. In other cases the federal government did not give up all of its rights to the property within the ROW, and the objects that may be found within that ROW may still be U.S. Government property. Removing that property could then put you in violation of federal regulations or state statutes.

In closing, I would like to say that the best advice I can give to insulator collectors when visiting areas where objects of interest to the collectors are protected by law is to “take only pictures, and leave only footprints”. Insulator collecting is a hobby that many find interesting and reap much enjoyment from. It would be a shame to have one’s hobby ruined by running afoul of the law resulting in the forfeiture of collections, stiff fines, jail time and the resulting penalties such as the loss of certain civil rights if convicted of a felony offense. It would be much better to enjoy and share the thrill of finding a rare insulator undisturbed in the setting in which it was originally used and leaving it undisturbed for others to enjoy during their visit to public lands.

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Written Friday, June 20, 2008