Around Barstow, Thieves’ Prey Is Prehistory
Sweat beads on the paleontologist’s reddening forehead as he points to nothing.
More precisely, the jagged, buff-colored holes on a jutting slab of mudstone and volcanic ash in this dusty corner of the Mojave Desert show where something used to be. The heart-shaped footprints left by an ancestral camel on a prehistoric lakeside 12 million to 20 million years ago are gone, pinched by a longtime scourge of the desert: fossil thieves.
“More and more, these relics get destroyed because of ignorance or whatever,” said Robert Hilburn, a Barstow paleontologist and president of the Mojave River Valley Museum there. “Instead there’ll be a heart-shaped piece of rock in a box in somebody’s garage.”
The prized tracks were fixed in formations that draw paleontologists and geologists from around the world. Minerals from the layers of volcanic ash north of Barstow allow researchers to precisely date the fossils and cross-reference them with other specimens of more uncertain origins. Plus they offered a singular glimpse into a camel ancestor’s pause at an ancient watering hole.
As long as park rangers have been trying to protect the sites, black market fossil dealers and curious collectors alike have been chipping off chunks of prehistory from Barstow’s geologically unique Rainbow Basin Natural Area. Here, the multicolored Barstow Formation is a collision of jumbled angles, with faded red and green rock outcroppings and canyons exposing millions of years of dramatic geologic change, unobscured by vegetation.
Scientists would have to “travel the world over to find all the geologic features you find in this single compressed area,” Hilburn said.
California isn’t as rich in dinosaur bones as Utah, Wyoming or the Dakotas. But it does contain a trove of fossils and artifacts left by prehistoric animals and ancient civilizations. Elephants, rhinoceroses, saber-toothed cats and bear-dog hybrids roamed Southern California millions of years ago, leaving behind bones and tracks. Researchers have also uncovered American Indian rock art, arrowheads and cooking pots from as far back as 12,000 years ago.
The market for such items includes both artifacts legitimately unearthed on private lands -- with the owner’s permission -- and poached public relics.
Prices for a projectile point from an arrow or spear can run from $50 to $100, said Joan Oxendine, archeologist and cultural resource program manager with the federal Bureau of Land Management in Moreno Valley. Dinosaur skulls cost $10,000 at some gem and mineral shows, while smaller specimens can go for $50 to $200, said Robert Reynolds, a Riverside paleontologist and senior cultural resource manager with LSA Associates, a company that helps preserve specimens found during construction projects. Dealers can sell prime mammal fossils for thousands as well.
Thieves routinely outnumber and outmaneuver the few state and federal law enforcement agents responsible for protecting fossils and artifacts on public land.
The BLM has six agents to patrol 3 million acres of the Mojave Desert under its jurisdiction. California state park rangers are responsible for protecting more than 10,000 archeological specimens and countless fossils sprinkled over 1.5 million acres statewide, said Walter Gray, chief of cultural resources for state parks.
State park rangers arrest about 50 so-called pot hunters and collectors each year, said Randy Sederquist, chief of the state parks’ public safety division. Southern California is particularly prone to such raids, Sederquist said.
Experts say the total number of violations is impossible to pin down. But when one-time funds were appropriated in 1991 for a full-time cultural site monitor in Joshua Tree, the number of reported archeological violations there jumped from two the previous year to 146. Now, the number of violators caught has hovered around 10 to 20 annually.
Generally, fewer than 10 such incidents are reported by rangers each year at Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve, said Kathy Clark, staff ranger with the National Park Service’s regional office in Denver, which tracks such trends. Nationwide last year, the National Park Service logged 372 violations of laws protecting fossils and archeological relics. Fifty-one cases were prosecuted, said spokesman Al Nash.
Archeological relics such as pots, basketry and masks are in greatest demand, supporting an international underground industry, said Bob Bryson, an archeologist and cultural resources program chief at the Mojave National Preserve.
“It’s a huge problem,” Bryson said, that “has gone largely unnoticed by the public.”
The preserve employs four rangers to cover 1.6 million acres, with two more patrol officers coming, Bryson said.
The desert terrain makes it especially difficult to apprehend thieves. Rangers can rarely sneak up on a fossil poacher, said Roxie Trost, a field manager in the BLM’s Barstow office.
“They can see us coming miles away,” Trost said. Her office is investigating the stolen camel tracks, which were discovered missing by a geologist last month.
Rangers actually nabbing looters in the act is “pretty rare,” said Todd Swain, the lone National Park Service special agent for all of Southern California, who specializes in investigating cultural resource crimes. Investigators rely more on rangers discovering vandalized sites and tips from the public to root out the bandits.
Occasionally, artifacts are picked up by well-meaning hikers and campers who think they’re protecting something precious by bringing them to park rangers. Serious souvenir hunters can be as familiar with the nooks and crannies of the vast desert terrain as veteran looters, who are sometimes involved in other illegal activities. Some raiders are out pillaging every weekend for years, picking through the most valuable items and leaving piles of rock flakes and prehistoric refuse behind, Bryson said.
Cultural looting in California is on the rise, said Gray, the state park cultural resource chief, as California’s ballooning population spills into formerly isolated areas and all-terrain vehicles allow thieves to motor far into wilderness areas.
And “the power of the Internet has given people ... the ability to actually reach prospective buyers for objects in an instantaneous manner that didn’t exist” before, Gray said.
“Humans by nature are packrats, and there’s not a park resource out there ... that there isn’t somebody that isn’t just obsessed with collecting to have for their own,” Swain said, likening fossil enthusiasts to comic book or Beanie Baby fanatics. Swain is investigating six to 12 archeological cases across the Southland at any given time.
Penalties can be so light -- a fine of a few thousand dollars or several months in jail -- that antiquity thieves can afford to get caught. “It’s not like people are going to go to jail for life or they are going to be fined millions of dollars,” Swain said.
In 2001, officials busted a ring of Nevada raiders who had stolen at least 11,000 artifacts, including sandals, basket fragments and jewelry, from public lands in Nevada and Death Valley, much of which they displayed in their homes after selling the most valuable pieces. One offender was sentenced to 37 months in jail, in one of the stiffest sentences ever imposed for such crimes, Swain said.
The federal Archeological Resources Protection Act only prohibits filching cultural objects, such as bottles, structural ruins or skeletal remains at burial sites.
“In the paleontological world, there isn’t the same legal framework we have with the architectural stuff,” Bryson said.
The U.S. Senate passed a similar paleontological protection act last month; it has yet to go through the House.
Agencies are also trying to combat such thievery through educational programs, teaching visitors not to pocket fossils or arrowheads as souvenirs.
“It used to be you’d always run into people from Barstow who had their piece of the rock,” Reynolds said.
He stressed the importance of making plaster or resin copies of irreplaceable fossil tracks -- as he and Hilburn did with the camel prints before they were filched. The copies provide a permanent record of prehistoric life even when the originals are destroyed.
“You can’t go out and re-create a bunch of dinosaurs,” Swain said. “What’s there is there.”
The land management organizations also train “cultural stewards,” volunteers who monitor the most sensitive sites, checking for evidence of physical damage and collaborating with rangers.
Fossils and artifacts are “not a renewable resource,” Oxendine said.
“The sites fit together in a cultural pattern; if part of that pattern is broken, then that information is lost” forever.
“These are resources that belong to the public,” Trost said. “For somebody to go out and remove that, everybody loses.”