Saving the Oregon Trail: 'We have lost so much'

BURLEY, Idaho (AP) Grab your family's beloved scrapbook, gently flip it open and start ripping out the pages.

That's how Shauna Robinson said it felt to see the many holes dug along a pristine, miles-long stretch of the Oregon Trail by pillagers who presumably removed hundreds of artifacts from the area this summer.

Robinson, a local historian and U.S. Bureau of Land Management site steward for the Burley office, said the holes cut deeper than one might think. Many are saddened and hurt by the theft, she said.

The Oregon Trail was the first roadway into the Magic Valley. Many locals can trace their heritage to the thousands who journeyed along its ruts, and the untouched sections meandering through the Milner Historic Recreation Area are extraordinarily rare.

In the West, historians have few remaining historical landmarks to study, said BLM archaeologist Suzann Henrikson.

In that way, the Oregon Trail is the area's Plymouth Rock.

"We don't have a lot of physical evidence," she said. "We have lost so much in terms of the little homesteads, the little communities that started here in the 1870s and the 1880s. I go out to these locations and there is nothing left, just a location on a map."

The plundering of the trail has left historians and conservationists feeling exposed and vulnerable. Investigators have gathered clues and compiled numerous tips in hopes of finding and convicting those responsible. The artifacts are protected by the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, and first-time violators face federal punishment of up to a $20,000 fine and a year in prison.

"I hope that whatever they found, their greediness gets to them eventually," said Afton Patrick, a Twin Falls resident and past president of the Idaho chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association.

BLM investigators recently gave the thumbs up for restoration work in the area to begin. An area Boy Scout troop helped fill the holes Friday so seasonal weatherization could work to bandage the land.

Henrikson said the BLM likely can hide the scars, but the real damage will never be fixed.

"In time the vegetation will come back, but ultimately, this section of trail used to be pristine and now we can't say that," she said.

As westward-bound pioneers traveled the Oregon Trail, wagon fragments, nails and other items would shake loose, be forgotten or discarded.

The trail's artifacts are not jewels, family heirlooms or things with monetary value. Their worth comes from their archaeological and historical significance, Henrikson said. Whatever was taken likely will sit in a box on a shelf.

"They don't really realize in their arrogance or in their ignorance what they have destroyed," Patrick said.

State Archaeologist Ken Reid wonders what could have been learned from surveying the nabbed items, especially considering that many might have been possessions of those who died on their journey. Reid said the trail has about 10 graves per mile, making it a "linear graveyard."

"When you hear a beep in the ground with a metal detector, you don't know if you are going for some discarded coffee pot or the suspender straps, the belt buckles and the boot nails of someone buried," he said.

Many sections of the trail, where hundreds of wagon wheels wore the ground smooth, have been lost to highways and agriculture. In the 1950s and '60s, historic preservation was not on the mind of a modernizing culture, Henrikson said.

After discovering the damage, BLM officials considered not publicizing the details, she said.

"Do we talk about it and jeopardize the investigation? Or do we get the word out and turn lemons into lemonade by getting the public to realize that this is not OK?" she said.

The subsequent public outrage pleased BLM officials; it means people do care and that attitudes have shifted. That likely would not have been the case 30 years ago, Henrikson said.

"This is the education that everyone is getting," she said. "It is horrible and it is sad, but we finally have people's attention. We finally have people thinking, 'Oh, well maybe it is not OK to do this on public land.'"

Henrikson and others wonder how to prevent such events. Why, after more than 160 years of peace, did someone decide to push a shovel into this area?

The recent popularity of television programs glorifying use of metal detectors to unearth discarded items on private land could be the main reason, she said. The shows imply these items have value beyond simple sentiment, such as rare coins and forgotten jewelry.

Archaeologists and historians have pleaded with the networks to curb their attitude and approach such digging from an educational standpoint, Henrikson said. They didn't get far.

Reid said the Burley-area pillaging will be a hot topic among many state and national organizations' meetings this winter as many wonder how they can quash future damage.

"Unless there is a really firm response from the federal government over the impact to public land, I guess this is likely to continue accelerating as long as there is a market that buys the shows," he said.

Patrick said she predicted the trail would be damaged at some point but figured it would come from all-terrain vehicles, which have damaged other areas.

Increased awareness of the trail, however, has unfortunately led to adverse effects. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, trail conservationists marked the path where they could find graves, Patrick said. They later found those same areas depredated by hunters, hikers or other curious passersby.

Patrick said she can't think of a foolproof solution. Youth education is important, but she also suggested increasing visitors' visible exposure to the rules. Perhaps decals could be placed on trail markers explaining the consequences of disturbing the trail, she said.

"I would think that most people would know (the consequences), but since it is in a trail and it is not in a state park or national park, maybe they think differently," she said.

Reid suggested state and federal agencies develop a plan to better manage the use of metal detectors. While some areas and activities could be prohibited, others could be regulated with stipulations that prospectors research and submit plans of their activities.

"I'm sure there is a prosperous industry selling these things," he said of the metal detectors. "Like guns, everyone wants one and the right to use it, and they don't want their rights infringed by laws and regulations."

So why not rope off the trail and keep its location a secret? Henrikson said that defeats the purpose.

Patrick agreed. "Leave it the way it is, let people experience it and we'll take our chances." If residents see someone doing something they shouldn't, approach the culprits or tell an official, she said.

"Most people will be grateful, and very few will be belligerent," she said.

Henrikson said many "wonderful people" want to have a personal experience with the trail that could not be found from behind a rope. She does not want to punish everyone because of the actions of a few.

"I'm going to share that information," she said. "I know these people just want to go out and have that peace of walking an isolated stretch of the trail.

"You don't hear the cars, see the power lines and you don't see the development. You can get that sense of what the immigrants experienced."


Information from: The Times-News,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press