What happens when the lure of outdoor rec starts to pull people onto tribal lands?

By Elizabeth Miller/The Colorado Sun
Published December 3, 2021
Tourists cast their shadows on the ancient Anasazi ruins of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. A surge in visitors to public lands where ancient artifacts rest is challenging the limits of the Navajo Rangers to protect them. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, File)/AP
This story was originally published in The Colorado Sun.

INDIAN WELLS, ARIZONA — When the FBI suspected someone was illegally digging artifacts from the Navajo Nation, an agent called Jonathan Dover for help.

Dover was working as a Navajo Ranger who specialized in archaeological crimes. He drove with the FBI agent out into a search area that spanned hundreds of square miles. They were unsure how to find this site. They just started looking around. A few miles down a dirt road, he noticed small mounds on a hillside. When they hiked up the ridge, Dover recalls, they found a plateau pockmarked with as many as a hundred holes, some just a few feet in diameter, and one large enough to park a Volkswagen bug inside.

“There were human remains scattered all over the landscape,” Dover said. “The pottery sherds that were laying on the ground were so thick that if you walked through there, you’d break them.”

They’d happened upon a centuries-old pueblo with more than 200 rooms, a ball court and a central plaza, he said. “It would have been just an amazing place, several stories high on top of the ridge there.”

They’d found it after graverobbers had, but were able to trace the items to a house in Winslow, Arizona. Dover went again with the FBI when they executed the search warrant, walking into a house that looked like a museum. Every wall was covered in shelves, and every shelf lined with pottery, skeletal material and jewelry. Even the fish tank had a broken pot sunken into it for the fish to swim through. They found photographs of the suspects lowering themselves down cliffs to reach into eagle nests and take feathers, which are illegal to possess unless you’re a Native American who can cite religious reasons for keeping them. Dover’s training as a ranger had prepared him both to know the law protecting the then-endangered species, and to identify raptors by their feathers.

Jonathan Dover poses for a portrait with his old Navajo Rangers badge near an Anasazi site in Leupp, Arizona./Ash Ponders

Navajo Rangers are a law enforcement multi-tool. Developed in the model of the National Park Service rangers and in the early days, the Navajo Rangers were stationed at tribal parks, like Monument Valley, to assist with guiding visitors and educating them on the cultural and natural history of the place. But they’re trained at the U.S. Indian Police Academy in public safety and criminal investigations.

The core of the job still centers on resource protection on the Navajo Nation, the traditional homelands of the Navajo, who call themselves Diné. Their land, which they call Dinétah, spans 27,000 square miles of everything from ponderosa pine forest to desert canyon country, but their training and the long distances between law enforcement offices on the Navajo Nation mean they end up fielding all kinds of emergency calls.

In his three decades as a Navajo Ranger, Dover also found and safely detonated caches of dynamite from old uranium mines, assisted in search and rescue operations, and provided other basic public safety services. Rangers also check livestock brands and firewood collection permits and help at events on tribal lands like trail runs. They’ve provided security detail for Olympic torch runners, Navajo Nation presidential inaugurations, and visiting First Ladies.

None of these pressures have declined in recent years — if anything, the need has grown. More people are visiting tribal lands throughout the West and adjacent public lands to hike, bike or boat, and they’re accompanied by concerns about trespassing and vandalism at cultural sites, as well as traffic accidents and other issues.

But the number of rangers has dropped over the decades. Dover was one of 40 rangers when he joined in 1980. Now, they number just nine. Funding cuts have corresponded to staffing reductions, and Dover worries the rangers could soon fade from existence.

With them would go one more resource for tribal communities already pressed to manage — and even encourage visitors — while still preserving their own safety and cultural heritage.

Outdoor recreation on tribal lands raises a host of its own concerns

For communities around Colorado that look to outdoor recreation as an economic driver, there’s no doubt the last year has been a boon, said Ernest House Jr., senior policy director for the Keystone Policy Center and former executive director for the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. But it’s important to note that the economic benefits, as well as natural and cultural resource concerns play out differently on tribal lands.

House lives near the Canyon of the Ancients, a national monument in southwestern Colorado designated by President Bill Clinton in 2000. That designation aimed to protect an estimated 30,000 cultural sites, such as field houses, kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, petroglyphs, and sweat lodges, sometimes as closely clustered as 100 per square mile. But establishing a national monument put those canyons and the sites they held on public maps.

House, who grew up hiking those canyons, says every time he hikes there now, he sees more and more people.

“I’m glad people are getting out, but at the same time, my worry is that with the growing population, not only with federal lands but also with tribal lands, how can that preservation be maintained, protected for everybody to experience?” he said.

Counties and towns often get on board with outdoor recreation as a major economic driver — often a major source of tax revenue. But that revenue doesn’t work the same way on tribal lands, House said, where tribes, instead, depend on tribal enterprises, like gaming or tour companies, to generate income. That limits how tribes can convert increased visitation into increased revenue to run programs that protect resources and guide visitors.

And the list of needs for those programs is long. There’s a basic need for more education that the public can’t have the same access to tribal lands that they would with a state park, for example. He’s heard indigenous community members say they feel a disconnect between recreationalists and respect for the land that they’re on. Take, for example, the frequent requests from rock climbers to the Ute Mountain Ute tribe for access to Chimney Rock (not to be confused with Chimney Rock National Monument near Pagosa Springs), or to the Navajo for access to Shiprock, or “Tsé Bit’ a’í”, a volcanic rock formation in New Mexico considered sacred.

“I think the call for continued education and awareness around why these places are important and have always been important to indigenous communities is an ongoing thing,” House said.

Tribes also don’t receive the same federal support for some of these efforts. State historic preservation offices receive federal funds, but tribal historic preservation offices don’t.

Those offices, already short-staffed and overwhelmed, field constant questions about sites, artifacts and human remains returned to tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and even questions of renaming peaks in Colorado, House said. Additional funding for those programs and others that help manage and protect cultural resources seems due.

Bullet holes riddle a Bureau of Land Management sign in the Lake Mountains area of Utah on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. The sign explains that the area has archaeological artifacts and that penalties will be enforced if damage is done to the historical objects./Evan Cobb

The way forward, he contends, is for tribes to continuously have a seat at the table, whether through a representative from historic preservation offices, or, as was the case with Bears Ears National Monument, a shared management role for tribes with federal land managers. He’s seen promising measures. The Ute Mountain Ute tribe and Colorado’s congressional delegation have been talking about how to bring more awareness and to protect and preserve some of these places. Colorado’s outdoor recreation office has also partnered with tribes.

Tribes convened before the summer 2018 Outdoor Retailer trade show in Denver to discuss possibilities for outdoor recreation both among tribes and on tribal lands. There, they recognized how recreation, like hiking, hunting, and fishing, was built into indigenous ways of life. They discussed if and how to branch to contemporary definitions of outdoor recreation with projects such as constructing mountain biking trails.

For now, any move to generate revenue through tribal enterprises and maintain the programs those dollars fund also needs balance with the ongoing ebb and flow of the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted tribal communities.

“There’s a lot of these questions coming out, especially now, around what does this future look like,” said House.

A breaking storm at sunrise on Mesa Verde near Mancos, Colorado./Dean Krakel

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park allows guests out with Ute guides to hike in canyons near Mesa Verde National Park that hold infrequently visited cliff dwellings. The national park itself was carved out of the tribe’s lands after its cliff dwellings were “found” by settlers. That history, House said, translates to hesitancy now: Opening tribal lands to visitors seems to invite some of those lands being taken away. Still, his great-grandfather, Chief Jack House, the last hereditary chief for the Ute Mountain Ute, supported opening the tribal park to visitors. Now, the question comes back to how to welcome the outdoor industry, without affecting the sanctity of these places.

“We’re seeing more visitors in other places in rural parts of the country that are adjacent to tribal lands,” House said. “It’s not just an issue for tribal communities, but it’s also an issue for these rural parts, areas of the state that are either adjacent to federal lands, state lands and tribal lands. And especially where tribes want to see potential growth in development of their own tribal interests or recreation or protection of sacred sites, that comes down to the funding needed to protect that.”

But, some resources built to help manage those concerns seem to be waning instead of growing parallel to public interest.

Providing for “a grab bag of emergencies”

Richard Fowler Van Valkenburgh, a former archaeologist for the National Park Service, launched the Navajo Rangers in 1957. The idea was to have tribal members — Navajo Rangers are either Navajo or married to someone Navajo — overseeing their own cultural resources on the Navajo Nation. The bulk of the Navajo Nation is in Arizona and New Mexico, with portions in southern Utah and the southwestern corner of Colorado.

Signs warn visitors about COVID-19 near Leupp, Arizona, on Nov. 9. The Navajo Nation reported some of the highest per-capita case rates, and was closed to visitors until July 12./Ash Ponders

The Navajo Nation, which reported some of the highest per-capita COVID-19 case rates in the first months of the pandemic, remained closed to visitors from the first weeks of the pandemic until July 12 of this year. While tribal lands and parks were closed, Christopher Chee, general manager for Dixie’s Lower Antelope Canyon Tours, said his staff were consistently running into problems with trespassers accessing tribal land from Lake Powell and finding graffiti or trash. The tours visit sinuous sandstone canyons near Page, Arizona, on an easement acquired by the Navajo Nation to establish a tribal park.

The eight staff members were kept on even while tours were canceled, spending their time patrolling the canyons and using water and sand to scour off graffiti — but his staff can’t cite people for trespassing or vandalism, Chee said. A Navajo Ranger could, but their closest office is more than three hours away in Window Rock. He sees the rangers around, but not often.

“They have a very huge area they’ve got to patrol,” he said. “For our area, there’s only two rangers, and they’re spread too far out.”

Stanley Milford Jr. was recruited to work as a Navajo Ranger for Monument Valley, a job that took him to beautiful, remote places where it seemed no person had ever stood before. But the job demanded a difficult balance. The park wanted someone around to greet visitors, escort cash-handlers to the bank, and for what the National Park Service calls “interpretation,” as well as helping with medical and search and rescue calls and running a radar to issue traffic tickets.

But he kept getting calls for emergencies elsewhere, including domestic violence or “man with a weapon” calls for law enforcement officers, that he was closer to than the nearest police station in Kayenta, Arizona. Backup was often more than an hour’s drive away.

Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border, in a 2018 photo. /AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File

His “baptism by fire” came just months into the job, when Cortez police officer Dale Claxton was killed while on duty and the suspects vanished into the Four Corners desert. Milford was pulled into the manhunt, patrolling the canyons around the San Juan River. For years, when he drove back and forth from where he was living near Fort Defiance to work in Window Rock, he’d detour through that area, have a look around and talk to people, just looking for more clues in that case. (The last of three suspects, all found dead, was located in 2007.)

Eventually, the parks department went on to hire its own rangers. But the job didn’t slow down, Milford said. The Navajo Rangers are housed in the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources’ Department of Resource Enforcement, and oversee a dozen departments under that umbrella.

“The rangers department is basically catchall law enforcement for all of the natural resources and some of the public safety, so those programs and departments depend on you to enforce their laws,” Milford said. “You’re pulled in all different directions, and it was nothing to work 14 hours a day.”

Even after putting in 70 hours during the work week, calls would keep coming in on the weekend. Milford said: “You were facing burnout all the time.”

He transitioned to a different department with the Navajo Nation earlier this year — counting more than 23 years of service, ending in August as a sergeant, and 15 encounters that might have cost him his life — not including working through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Justice has pointed out that departments run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are agents of the federal government, not the tribes, and so have “limited incentive to look to the communities they serve for legitimacy. … Over time, this arrangement has created a gap between tribal police and the communities they serve.” That gap “results in mismatches between police methods and tribal norms and values.”

Ranger programs are often locally generated, quasi-official components of law enforcement that appeared where coverage needs or community concerns gave rise to them. When they appeared in rural areas, their functions often match those of game and fish officers — but the point was, they’ve been adaptable to local community needs and responsive to their priorities

Rangers can provide for “a grab-bag of emergencies,” said Klara Kelley, an archaeologist who has worked with the Navajo Nation. She’s seen them called for work with historic preservation for the Navajo Nation. And, she’s seen rangers come to haze a bear taking up residence in an abandoned building near Window Rock. When a heavy winter storm stranded people who lived in remote homesteads on a plateau near Canyon de Chelly National Monument, rangers helped mobilize a trip out to those stuck families, checking on them and figuring out where best to air drop supplies.

They’ve also shown up to help with trail runs organized by Navajo YES, which runs a series of events on tribal lands. As someone who has staffed aid stations during those runs, she said, “We get a first aid manual … and you feel nervous about, what if these things you’ve trained on actually happen? It’s really helpful to know the rangers are somewhere nearby.”

“It amazes me that the program is willing to free up people for that because they’re spread so thin,” she added.

In his last years as a ranger, Milford said, he even started running into vans with undocumented immigrants being moved across tribal lands and a growing worry about influence from cartels.

“The demand was there, and it continues to grow every single day,” Milford said, “and your number of personnel isn’t growing.”

Damage to cultural resources follows

In Dover’s 30 years with the rangers, he saw the number of cases he worked climb, recovering artifacts from major auction houses, hiking miles down into canyons and across talus slopes searching for sensitive sites, and working on multi-jurisdictional cases with people illegally excavating artifacts across a dozen national parks. The investigations required the skill of a homicide detective — like a case made on a discarded cigarette butt that held DNA — but the sensitivity of a tribal member.

Jonathan Dover leafs through mementos from his career in the Navajo Rangers at his home in Leupp, Arizona./Ash Ponders

“I got to go to some really, really amazing places, and one of the things to realize is, on the Navajo reservation, there are only three people that are allowed to go to those places,” he said. “One is an archeologist, of course, working for the Navajo Nation; the next one is a medicine man to be able to pick up little pieces of bone they use in an enemy way ceremony; and the third one is a Navajo Ranger. Even police officers are not supposed to go to those places. I had to consult medicine men on how to behave at those places, and what they told me was, you be respectful, you don’t kick the earth, you don’t pee on the earth, you’re very respectful at all times and you’re OK to be at those places, because that’s your job.”

Milford and Dover were also tasked with overseeing the rangers’ paranormal unit. A previous chief ranger made the decision, after a Navajo elder called in an attack on her livestock and suspected Bigfoot, that every case, no matter the claim — Bigfoot, ghosts, aliens — would be thoroughly and respectfully investigated. It’s generated some strange stories, and some media attention, but they say amounted to about one in 100 cases they handled.

Dover acknowledges, the way he went after the job was unique. He trained in technical rope rescues and helped people who were stuck rappelling or stranded when the flow at Grand Falls, an ephemeral waterfall on tribal lands, suddenly picked up. He saw himself as a “prototype ranger,” an example of what the program was built to become. He’s not convinced other rangers came on board expecting to do more than inspect livestock brands before those animals are sold, which was, admittedly, also a big part of the job until it was recently transferred back to the Department of Agriculture.

Jonathan Dover’s Navajo Rangers badge rests in the sand near an Anasazi site in Leupp, Arizona. Dover’s badge number was retired when he retired and he was uniquely allowed to keep his badge./Ash Ponders, Special to The Colorado Sun

In 2011, he was told by budgeting staff that if his position and salary were eliminated, it would allow two other rangers to keep their jobs. Dover said, “I guess on some level, I was good with that,” and left the department.

Now, he’s writing a memoir of work as a ranger and making guest appearances on television shows.

Revenue sources for the Navajo Nation declined with coal. The area hosted massive coal mines and coal-fired power plants. The transition to cleaner sources of energy closed both.

Dover’s first issued uniform was a set of sand-brown shirts fished out of a clean garbage bin used to store them. He wore them with blue jeans. He was equipped with a wooden baton and a little, light blue, four-speed truck with no air conditioning and no power steering. The word “ranger” was printed on the tailgate, and two “bubblegum machines” — lights — affixed on top. The Navajo Rangers received federal Community Oriented Policing Services grants, which were used to upgrade equipment, weapons, and uniforms, but that was some years ago. Now, he worries the equipment they bought is rusting, with no one there even trained to use it.

He almost expects the department to sunset.

“All the resources stuff is going to get left behind,” Dover says. “The forestry, the fish and wildlife, mines, minerals, water resources, rescue — they’ve got nobody trained anymore to do that kind of stuff.”

“There’s a tremendous need for more eyes on the ground and more enforcement,” said Neal Clark, wildlands director at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “That’s something we know from research — the more access you have, the more inadvertent and purposeful vandalism you see at cultural sites. … We’re just seeing a lot of new users, a lot of new use, and we haven’t seen a commensurate increase in resources and staffing to manage that use.”

This June 22, 2016, file photo, shows the “House on Fire” ruins in Mule Canyon, near Blanding, Utah. Bears Ears in Southeastern Utah made The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2016 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, an annual list that spotlights important examples of the nation’s architectural and cultural heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage./AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File

That became especially clear after the designation and promotion of Bears Ears. The fragile desert landscape was suffering under so much visitation without adequate bathrooms or trails, or anyone keeping an eye on off-road vehicles, which can quickly tear up soil crust and riparian areas. Graffiti, like people carving their names into rock features, and other impacts to cultural sites followed.

“There are a lot of places you can go and still see recent dug pits, [from people] trying to find cultural resources,” Clark said. “It’s an active issue, it’s not something that happened 50 years ago and is over.”

It’s not that people shouldn’t be recreating and enjoying public lands, Clark said, “it’s that the agencies really need to start getting proactive about how we’re going to manage so that we have quality experiences for a whole spectrum of public land users, from people who want wilderness and the backcountry to people who want developed picnic sites and mountain bike trails. We have a big spectrum of land users, and we need to figure out how to provide those experiences and also protect resources — and it’s not an easy answer, so it’s really going to take concerted, proactive strategies.”