After reading some of the newspaper and magazine articles about Range Creek and watching the recent TV documentary about the place, a person would almost think the canyon is a lost world like Jurassic Park. From all of the breathless publicity, one would expect to find prehistoric arrows sticking in trees and moccasin tracks in the sand along the creek. It's not like that at all. In fact, after soaking up all of the hype, the trip into Range Creek is rather disappointing. I've been there twice this year.
Now don't get me wrong. I fully appreciate the significance of the place. The canyon is a national treasure and it should be managed that way. But, in spite of the publicity, in my humble opinion, the canyon is not a great tourist destination. It's a long ways from being Mesa Verde, or even Nine Mile. Most of the sites are subsurface pit houses, open-air campsites, or shallow rock shelters. Only tour groups with an official guide are allowed to traverse the length of the canyon, and there just isn't that much to see for the time and effort it takes to get there. The magic of Range Creek is the scientific potential, not spectacular, easy to visit sites.
However, the notoriety of the place is making it a prime tourist destination. Everyone wants to go there, and that is becoming a dilemma for the managing agencies. I completely sympathize with Duncan Metcalfe, the project archaeologist, who, in spite of locked gates, is being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of visitors while trying to direct a scientific survey of the canyon.
And then too, I fear that the warm glow of Range Creek publicity will take center stage in the world of Utah archaeology, to the detriment of other areas. There are still some marvelous sites in Nine Mile and southern Utah that beg to be studied before the vandals and bulldozers get them, and they are not behind locked gates. The hype about Range Creek would make you believe that there are no other untouched, unexcavated, or un-vandalized sites left anywhere else in Utah. It isn't true. There are a great many.
There are other issues too. The canyon was purchased with public funds. It belongs to all of us and was intended as a multiple use area. Archaeology should not be the single focus. Initially, oversight was given to the Division of Wildlife Resources because the hunting potential of the canyon was better known than the archaeological resources. When and how do we get to hunt there?
And, the fact that Waldo Wilcox still owns the mineral rights is a potential problem. There's oil, gas, and tar sands in them thar hills. I had to smile when I learned that the old cowboy still held an ace he hasn't played yet. Under pressure, Wilcox sold the surface rights for about half of his original asking price. The country boy might take those city lawyers to the cleaners yet.
There is also the Native American question. Several modern tribes claim Fremont ancestry and will surely challenge any excavations in Range Creek. I understand their concerns about exhuming human remains, but it can be done in a very controlled and respectful way. Just a few years ago in the Salt Lake Valley, a complete Mormon pioneer cemetery was dug up, the remains studied, and then reburied. We can do that with Native American remains too. Tribal representatives could be present for the excavations and officiate at the reburials.
Contrary to what some Indians believe, archaeology is not an Anglo plot to do genocide on Native American culture. Archaeology is done in Europe and Africa too. In fact, archaeology is done in every country, including my ancestral homeland of Ireland. I have no problem with that.
I have nothing but respect for Native American people and Native American culture, but I do believe that they should be required to prove ancestry to the Fremont before they lay claim to places like Range Creek. We have the DNA technology to do that now.
And so, Range Creek presents an unprecedented opportunity, wrapped in controversy, surrounded by problems, in the shadow of multi-agency indecision about a comprehensive management plan, and with major legal battles looming on the horizon. Everybody wants to go there.
It must be a magic place indeed.