Fires Pose Risks For Archaeological Sites With drought, high temperatures and bark beetle infestations, conditions are ripe across the West for catastrophic forest fires. And that's making archaeologists very nervous. Fires may destroy thousands of ancient Native American artifacts and may expose other sites to looters. Peter O'Dowd reports for Wyoming Public Radio.
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Fires Pose Risks For Archaeological Sites

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Fires Pose Risks For Archaeological Sites

Fires Pose Risks For Archaeological Sites

Fires Pose Risks For Archaeological Sites

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With drought, high temperatures and bark beetle infestations, conditions are ripe across the West for catastrophic forest fires. And that's making archaeologists very nervous. Fires may destroy thousands of ancient Native American artifacts and may expose other sites to looters. Peter O'Dowd reports for Wyoming Public Radio.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Firefighters in California are making some progress against the biggest blazes there, but more than 300 fires are still burning out of control today. All across the west, forests are vulnerable to fire because of drought, warmer temperatures, and an epidemic of tree-killing bark beetles.

That in turn is making archaeologists nervous. They worry that more fires will destroy historical sites in the woods and give looters the chance to walk off with pieces of history.

Wyoming Public Radio's Peter O'Dowd reports.

PETER O'DOWD: At 8,000 feet in Wyoming, it still snows in the middle of the summer. A storm is whipping across this mountaintop as archaeologist Dan Eakins stands among the remnants of a 200-year-old wooden sheep trap built by the Shoshone Indians.

Mr. DAN EAKINS (Archaeologist): We're just dealing with the last vestiges of a bygone era. This is it.

O'DOWD: More than half a dozen of these traps are scattered across this part of the Shoshone National Forest. The piles of knotted pine logs where rams were once captured and slaughtered are a jumbled mess after two centuries. Eakins says it's only a matter of time before Wyoming's oldest manmade structures are reduced to ashes.

Mr. EAKINS: Time is of the essence. We have to extract as much information from them as we can as quickly as we can. We don't know when these areas are going to burn.

O'DOWN: It's not if these areas will burn, it's when and that's because this forest, like six million acres of forest across the west, is riddled with bark beetles. Many of these trees are already dead or dying. Either fire or time will eventually destroy the forest and these wooden traps. But Eakins is most worried about the campsites that remain buried around the structures under thick layers of forest floor known as duff.

Mr. EAKINS: Whenever you get these forest fires and the duff is consumed by a fire and everything's burned off, the whole thing is just laid out there right in front of you. The fire pit, pottery, butchering areas, flint knocking areas. You can see it all.

O'DOWD: And artifact hunters know it. Archaeologists have documented cases where looters moved in as soon as firefighters moved out. Former forest service investigator Tom Atkins was involved in a looting case after the Arch Rock fire in 1990 near Yosemite National Park. He says two men with ties to local antique stores were caught stealing prehistoric Indian spear points and remains from old logging operations that were uncovered in the blaze.

Mr. TOM ATKINS (Investigator): So they had a lot of artifacts, horseshoes, railroad spikes, old lanterns, anything that you could imagine would be left behind by a logging outfit in the late 1800s.

O'DOWD: Atkins says he expects this problem to grow, especially in the southwest where ancient people left troves of valuable artifacts in what have become increasingly vulnerable forests.

Mr. ATKINS: With the bark beetle infestations that are happening, with continued years of drought, the fires are becoming more catastrophic, larger and exposing more ground.

O'DOWD: As the fires rage, there is concern that many relics cannot be saved. A recent report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation said the U.S. Forest Service lacks the money and the staff to protect more than 300,000 places of historical significance across the country. Martin McAllister trains the federal government on archaeological law enforcement in damage assessment. He says staffing and money aren't entirely to blame.

Mr. MARTIN McALLISTER (Damage Assessment Trainer): The problem is too many sites, too many looters and not enough law enforcement officers to cover these vast areas of public and tribal land.

O'DOWD: In the end, archaeologists say they too will benefit from fires that reveal previously unknown sites. The trick is getting there before the looters do.

For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Laramie.

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