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Range Creek plan seeks to balance multiple interests

Some of the land will probably be used for grazing as before.

Sun Advocate Reporter

Why did the Ancient Ones leave Range Creek 700 years ago and what were they afraid of while they were there? Those are two of many good, unanswered questions about the so-called Fremont Indians facing researchers headed by the University of Utah Museum of Natural History.

There's another question, though, and this one is about the future: What's the best way to conduct extensive archaeological and natural history research within the property's strict environmental rules?

That's a question that has to be answered by next summer, according to the museum's Associate Director for Community Relations Ann Hanniball. June 2011 is the deadline for producing the comprehensive management plan that will govern operations in the sensitive area, she told the Carbon County Commission Wednesday.

A conservation easement was placed on the property by the Trust for Public Land, a California-based preservation group that bought the land from the Wilcox family in December 2001. The easement contains 18 pages of legal requirements that will be attached to the property forever.

Hanniball said it is a complication, but not an impossible situation. The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is primarily responsible for the easement, in collaboration with the divisions of Wildlife Resources and Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Some management items are already certain, she said. Public assess will still require permits or authorized guide service. The old ranch house, which already serves as a field research station, won't be torn down or extensively remodeled because "it is a part of history" and will probably end up in a historic register.

In answer to a question from commissioner Mike Milovich, she explained that cattle grazing will most likely continue. Alfalfa pasture is good protection against range fire and cattle will keep it mowed.

The land straddles the Carbon-Emery border about 30 miles southeast of Price. It is in such a remote location that it escaped the depredation and outright grave-robbing that has ruined many other prehistoric Native American sites. The Wilcox family, who settled there in 1951, kept the secret treasures locked away for three generations until Waldo Wilcox sold the land in 2001.

Until then, people had only a few clues of what was there. The Pilling Figurines at the USU-CEU Prehistoric Museum come from Range Creek, and a few other artifacts have come out of the steep-sided canyon. But the true astonishment hit after the state acquired the land from TPL in 2004. It was nothing less than hundreds of remnants of an ancient culture, undisturbed by human intrusion for seven centuries.

Richard Shaw, then community editor for the Sun Advocate, wrote that the discovery touched off "the largest national and state media frenzy in the Carbon County area since the Wilberg Mine disaster." Reporters and photographers from major national newspapers, television and radio networks converged for a media tour in July 2004 and the site gained worldwide attention instantly.

So far researchers have identified about 400 archaeological sites, including pit houses, rock art and many granaries. One of those granaries is 900 feet above the canyon floor. They have also found many artifacts, including 1,000-year old corn cobs and a reed flute that may be just as old or older.

The presence of so many scattered granaries shows that the Fremont were farmers and hoarders. But the question of why they stored their grain in such difficult-to-reach places is still open. Did they fear food theft by invaders, or by members of their own community? And was it prolonged drought or war that finally forced them to leave home after 1,000 years of inhabiting the canyon?

The answers will depend on evidence yet to be discovered.

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