In a plea agreement with the Mono County District Attorney’s Office, resident Howard Walters pleaded guilty to one charge of misdemeanor vandalism and was ordered to pay $3,823 in restitution to the Bureau of Land Management after he damaged a cultural site in the Chalfant area.
Law enforcement rangers and archaeological staff from the BLM Bishop Field Office opened an investigation into the damage of a cultural resource site in the Chalfant Valley in January after rangers received a report of a man digging in the area.
BLM Field Office Manager Steve Nelson said law enforcement caught Walters digging in a known historic site and had illegally collected artifacts in his possession.
The damage took place on public and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power lands in Mono County. Officers from several agencies served a search warrant on the Walters home and seized additional artifacts that the BLM says had been illegally taken from public lands.
Part of the BLM’s mission is to protect natural and cultural resources located on public lands. “When individuals damage cultural resource sites or remove artifacts from public lands, they take an irreplaceable part of our national cultural heritage from all of us,” Nelson said.
While the BLM has seen resolution on this case, the agency is continuing its investigation into the theft of priceless petroglyphs that were stolen from a site north of Bishop last year.
That theft and vandalism, in which six petroglyph panels were stolen, was discovered on Oct. 1, 2013. According to the BLM, the petroglyphs were cut and chiseled out of a rock wall and removed from the area and several other ancient etchings were damaged in the process.
In the wake of the thefts, a $9,000 reward was offered by the BLM, Bishop Paiute Tribe and an online group calling itself “Raise the Bounty: Climbers Against the Bishop Petroglyph Theft” for information leading to the conviction of those responsible.
The case received national media attention and in late January 2013, the petroglyphs were anonymously returned to the BLM office in Bishop.
At the time, BLM officials said the widespread media attention and reward funds for the apprehension of those responsible may have been a factor in the return of the petroglyphs.
Nelson said that the investigation into the theft is ongoing and the returned petroglyphs are currently considered evidence.
Once the ancient pieces of art are released from evidence, either following the apprehension of the thief or thieves, or after the BLM closes the case, Nelson said the petroglyphs could be used to educate the public on the sensitive nature of local Native American sites.
“There’s no solid plan for the petroglyphs right now; however, we are working to evaluate the technical feasibility of restoring the vandalized site,” Nelson said. “We’ll consult with the tribes to find a solution to that when we get there.”
Residents in the community have asked that the petroglyphs be returned to the site north of Bishop and incorporated into an educational exhibit to teach visitors of the sensitive nature of cultural sites. “If there’s an educational value, that’s of interest to us,” Nelson said, explaining that the petroglyphs could serve as a reminder to residents who visit the sites to call authorities if they see anyone or anything suspicious while recreating on public land.
Cultural resources are protected under various state and federal laws and regulations including the California Public Resources Code and the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Depending on the severity of the offense, the unauthorized removal, damage, alteration or defacement of cultural resources can be prosecuted as misdemeanors or felonies resulting in fines and imprisonment of up to five years.
The maximum penalty for collecting or disturbing a rock art or burial site, for example, is up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine as well as forfeiture of vehicles and tools used in the collecting.
In 2011, a Lone Pine resident was caught digging for and taking home Native American artifacts near Lone Pine. As the result of a plea agreement, the man is banned from stepping foot on 700 acres of public lands in exchange for the state not prosecuting him on four archaeological resource violations.
At the time, Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Reservation Tribal Preservation Officer Kathy Bancroft said educating the public about the sensitive nature of these sites – so important to the culture of Native Americans and local history – is a delicate balance. It’s hard to ask the public to steer clear of certain areas without revealing the location of potential illegal treasure to looters.
“It’s OK to look,” Bancroft said of artifacts, “but don’t take things – that’s all we ask.”
Anyone who suspects they have found an ancient site or artifacts or has witnessed someone digging in public lands is asked to call the nearest tribal office or BLM. Digging or otherwise excavating on public lands is not allowed without a permit. Anyone who does catch or see a looter is urged not to make contact personally but first gather as much information as possible about the subject, particularly vehicle descriptions or plate numbers, and call the BLM office or local law enforcement.
The number for the BLM office in Bishop is (760) 872-5000; the Benton Tribal Office is (760) 933-2321; Big Pine Tribal Office, (760) 938-2003; Bishop, (760) 873-3584; Lone Pine Reservation, (760) 876-1034 and the Fort Independence Tribe is (760) 878-3200.