Relic Thefts 'Huge Crime Problem' In U.S. Parks, Judy Keen, January 24, 2008, 3-A.
Some visitors to Badlands National Park spot a fossil and take it home as a souvenir. Sometimes college students studying the 244,000-acre park's natural history assume it's OK to take a specimen for further scrutiny. A bigger problem, though, is the looting of artifacts found in the South Dakota park's rich fossil beds by thieves who plan to sell them online or to galleries or collectors.
"With a million visitors coming every year, it's very hard to stop," says Mark Gorman, Badlands' chief ranger. "Has it increased over the past few years? Absolutely." Six permanent rangers patrol the park. Last year, they investigated 41 looting reports and made nine arrests. He assumes that represents a fraction of the real number of thefts. Signs warn visitors not to take artifacts and to stay away from possible Indian burial sites, but thieves can be persistent and brazen, Gorman says.
"Collectors will dial 911 to draw park resources away … and give themselves time to get into areas to quickly pick up their work," he says. Human remains, animal fossils, bullets and projectiles all vanish. Fossils from the Oligocene Epoch 28 million years ago, such as the rhinoceros-like Titanothere and saber-toothed cats, "can easily sell for tens of thousands of dollars," Gorman says. "It's the theft of our collective history. It's horrible because it's not renewable."
Many park service officials agree that looting is increasing and often is undetected. Budgets are stretched thin, says Blake Selzer, legislative director for the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association. "Insufficient budgets translate to unfilled positions and inadequate staffing," he says. The budget for the National Park Service budget increased to $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2007 from $2.1 billion in 2000. Spending on law enforcement in the park system rose from $129 million to $178 million in that period, but Selzer says spending related to homeland security since 9/11 accounts for about $40 million each year.
The park system's 83 million acres include open country that's accessible to anyone and hard to patrol. Besides, says Angus Quinlan of the Nevada Rock Art Foundation, "because they're on public lands, people seem to think they can take whatever they want." Stolen artifacts were once sold mostly at swap meets or galleries, but many now end up online, says Todd Swain, a National Park Service special agent. "You could have a thousand people scanning the Internet every day for all the potentially illegal things that are on there," he says, but proving artifacts' origins is difficult.
Martin McAllister, a former Forest Service archaeologist whose Missoula, Mont., company Archaeological Resource Investigations trains and consults with federal law enforcement officials, says the theft of artifacts from national parks and other federal land is "a huge, huge crime problem — a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry." In the Southwest, McAllister says, officials are finding more looting methamphetamine addicts. "A Native American pot is money. It's cash in your hand," he says. Arizona and other states, he says, use volunteer "site stewards" to help monitor archaeological sites.
•At both entrances to Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, employees "talk to everybody that comes in" about the ban on removing anything, chief ranger Greg Caffey says. Some landowners on the park's periphery have hired security guards to prevent looting on their property, he says.
•At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia, where three men dug 460 holes last year and extracted Civil War artifacts, there are signs every 20 or 30 feet along boundaries reminding visitors not to remove anything. Rangers stop anyone with a metal detector and visit trade shows to look for looted items, but chief ranger Keith Kelly says, "I don't know if we'll ever be able to stop people."
•At Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, a man who pleaded guilty to removing artifacts last year was required as part of his sentence to write letters to newspapers explaining why what he did was wrong and how it damaged the park, chief ranger Jessie Farias says.
•At Badlands National Park, rangers are doing more undercover work, surveillance and stings to catch thieves and are working with stores to identify looted items, Gorman says.
Tim Alley, a National Park Service special agent based in Virginia, worries that looting on protected federal land is increasing as residential and business development eliminate private land accessible to relic hunters. "We really have a duty to protect our limited resources," he says. "It gets harder and harder to do."
Photo: Andrew Councill, USA Today