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Media Frenzy: the world comes to Carbon county

Sun Advocate publisher

Associated Press photographer takes aim at the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum Wednesday.

In June 30, the ancient world of a remote Carbon County ranch was opened up literally for the first time to the rest of the world.

Virtually a secret to the outside world for the last 50 years, the unspoiled villages of the Fremont Indians became an international topic of interest news last Thursday morning as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Denver Post joined the Today Show, ABC, NBC and literally hundreds of smaller weekly and daily newspapers across the country to report the breaking story of undisturbed archaeological finds in Range Creek approximately 50 miles southeast of Price.

The unspoiled Book Cliffs region of the Red Rock country has long been known for amazing natural resources and archeological ruins.

In fact, the Peabody research team from Harvard University studied 20 of the sites on the remote ranch in 1931. But it wasn't until mid-2001 when the Trust for Public Land began negotiating with the United States Bureau of Land Management and Utah to purchase the ranch from the Waldo Wilcox family.

In December 2001 with funds from the BLM, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the state quality growth LeRay McCallister fund and forest legacy program, the trust for public land purchased the entire ranch and conveyed the property to BLM. In early 2004, the DWR took ownership of the property.

Last Wednesday's media frenzy came about by accident. In fact, archaeologists and DWR officials conducting the media tour indicated more than once that the agencies were not ready for the situation.

Shooting pictures of rock art.

The story was leaked when a reporter with the Emery County Progress ran an article June 15 following a tour through Range Creek. The article was read by a reporter from an upstate daily newspaper, spawning a second story in the Deseret News. The report was consequently picked up on the Associated Press wire.

Last Friday, reporters from Utah's newspapers and television stations were contacted by DWR for a tour of the ancient sites. By Wednesday, more than 100 media representatives from throughout the country converged on Price for the grand tour.

By 9 a.m. on June 30, the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum parking lot was filled with news trucks. Photographers and reporters, carrying cameras and notebooks, asked archaeologists, Wilcox family members, museum personnel, DWR officials and BLM representatives thousands of questions about the area, the site, the ranch and future concerns.

Along the 12-mile stretch of property lie hundreds of ancient burial sites and homes.

Utah state archaeologist Kevin Jones briefed reporters before the tour. Referring to a 1908 report, Jones pointed out that very few ancient sites had not been looted or vandalized. He made reference to Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, where people hauled artifacts out by the trainload, often to museums and collections in eastern Europe.

"To discover a place that has been untouched is phenomenal," said Jones. Although the area is not as grand as sites such as Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, he explained the ranch has hundreds of smaller, untouched homesteads that are ideal for archeologists to determine how the people lived and adapted to the hardships of the remote surroundings.

Throughout the tour, the reporters were given a chance to walk through pithouses and view the remains.

Rock granaries teeter on several cliffs, often more than 200 feet above the ground on narrow ledges. The structures contain shriveled corn cobs, pumpkin and squash seeds, many a 1,000 years old. The granaries appear to be built defensively, although the archeologists indicated there are not a lot of traces of fighting or warfare. Many of the granaries remain intact, which is very rare, explained Jones. The Fremonts were farmers and hunters and gathers.

It is believed that the population at any given time could have ranged from 250 to 500 people.

Rock art from the Fremont Indians cover the canyons.

A teaching assistant at the University of Utah's field institute, Joel Boomgarden is working with 30 students who are flagging finds among the junipers in the canyon. He said there isn't a lot of stuff on the ground, but the students are uncovering small arrowheads, grinding stones, various parts from pots and cutting tools.

For the past 50 years, the secret pithouses and granaries have been protected by Waldo Wilcox. As the rancher worked his cattle behind closed gates, the ancient treasurers were being protected from the outside world.

Asked if he was worried about people finding out about the secret canyon, Waldo was quick to comment that "within a year, it will be nothing but a pile of beer cans."

Chris Colt, one DWR official entrusted to manage the property, said he could not imagine what it's going to be like in the immediate future.

"I have been fielding eight to 10 calls a day even before this," noted Colt.

DWR officials are working on a management plan and indicate that guided tours on specific weekends or limited permitted visits might be one answers.

Since the Associated Press article two weeks ago, at least three artifacts have come up missing, reported Boomgarden. He said several arrowheads were moved, two knives and a part of a jar disappeared.

Drafts of a resource management plan and an environmental impact statement are due by the end of the summer. A 90-day public comment period will be schedule for each draft document.

Derris Jones, who headed the tour Wednesday, is DWR's supervisor for the southeast region. He said public access currently is allowed on foot or horseback.

Graneries filled with corn and squash seeds sit on ledges high above the canyon floor.

Looting American Indian artifacts on state lands is a class A misdemeanor criminal offense. Jones said similar offenses on U.S. public land fall under stiff federal laws, punishable by prison terms and $250,000 fines.

To the untrained eye, Range Creek appears to be a beautiful lush meadow, sandwiched between towering canyons and cliffs. The floor is filled with trees, a refreshing creek and grassy meadows. But to a trained archeologist, Range Creek is like a gold mine.

Jerry Spangler, an archaeologist who is working with CEU this summer leading their summer field school, spoke to the reporters Wednesday about the sites.

"This is an absolute treasure chest of history," commented Spangler, describing the pithouses, granaries and rock art from is carved on the canyon walls.

Since the world has found out about the Range Creek treasures, archaeologists and DWR officials will face a multitude of challenges as they proceed with the recordings the sites and completing the management plan.

Although officials agreed the agencies may not have been ready to go public with the facts about the site, Jones was philosophical about the matter.

"Ready or not, here they come," commented Jones.

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