ST. GEORGE — On Nov. 7, 2023, the Trust Lands Administration received a tip from a concerned citizen about vandalism and potential damage near Fort Pearce in Washington County.

Pictographs at the Fort Pearce site are part of the territory BLM Rangers seek to protect, Warner Valley, Utah, April 10, 2016 | Photo by Don Gilman, St. George News

Southern Utah law enforcement officers from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office responded and discovered an individual actively excavating a tunnel approximately 2 feet wide — and a staggering 15 feet deep — on state trust lands near a one-of-a-kind archaeological site.

According to a press release, the site is well known for its rock imagery shown through over 100 individual petroglyphs. In addition to the petroglyphs at the site, there are intact subsurface archaeological deposits discovered during limited test excavations carried out in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Radiocarbon data collected during the previous efforts suggest the site was occupied primarily during the Post-Pueblo Period (AD 1440-1660); however, temporally sensitive artifacts and rock imagery hint at earlier occupations during the Archaic and Far Western Pueblo periods (1000 BC-AD 1300).

“We couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” Washington County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Darrell Cashin. “The destruction was nothing like we’d ever seen before. The suspect had power and hand tools out there and he’d obviously been excavating for quite some time.”

Lead Archaeologist for the Trust Lands Administration, Joel Boomgarden, said once ancestral Puebloan sites such as these are gone, “there is no going back.”

“It’s almost impossible to calculate the damage caused by this guy,” Boomgarden said. “It is important for people to remember that the archaeological record of Utah is a finite resource. Nobody is making 1,000-year-old structures.”

A boulder full of petroglyphs near Fort Pearce, Utah, March 2017 | Photo courtesy of Lin Floyd, St. George News

During the continued investigation by Trust Lands Special Investigator Brent Kasza, it was revealed the suspect claimed to be a prospector.

“I found nothing during my investigation to confirm the suspect was prospecting for silver or any kind of valuable metal,” Kasza said. “I was able to uncover that the suspect belongs to several treasure-hunting groups. I was also unable to locate any proper Trust Lands permits for mining or any other legitimate business with our Administration.”

Washington County Prosecutor Tyler Bonzo filed the Illegal Activity on Trust Lands charges due to the location of the site.

“Trust Lands are critical to our state and especially our school kids,” Bonzo said. “Our office takes protecting these lands seriously and will file criminal charges whenever appropriate. The public needs to understand that causing damage of any kind, whether intentional or recklessly, to State Trust Lands is a crime, and they could be subject to imprisonment and liable for the hefty cost to fix the damage.”

As part of the Utah Code Annotated Section 9-8-404 on compliance responsibilities, the Trust Lands Administration is required to develop and implement a remediation plan for the site. The plan will not only document and repair the damage as best as possible but will also gather a significant amount of scientific data.

The archaeological deposits exposed during the illegal excavations will be the primary source for this data. Once analyzed, samples taken from these contexts will likely provide critical information about the chronology of occupation as well as answer questions related to diet, local/regional resource use and mobility.

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