The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says a news article alleging that the agency earlier this year “mistakenly” published sensitive information and location details about Native American artifacts in Grand and San Juan counties is misleading.
The nonprofit news agency The Center for Investigative Reporting published the article on its website, Reveal, on July 12: “Oops! Federal agencies divulge secret info about Native American artifacts.”
The article states the BLM “posted a 77-page report online that showed unique identifiers for priceless artifacts in Utah” which included “900 ancient cliff dwellings, spiritual structures, rock art panels and other Native American antiquities.”
Reveal said the BLM report was online for “a few days” before it was removed and then re-published with redactions.
Reveal’s article was shared by the online news site Mother Jones on July 18. The BLM said on Monday, July 23, it is aware of Reveal’s news report, but said the report is inaccurate and misleading.
“The BLM did not mistakenly post protected archaeological site information for the lease sale,” said Lisa Bryant, BLM Canyon Country spokesperson, in a statement to the Moab Sun News. “Publicly sharing cultural resource consultation information is actually required by regulations in instances where there is disagreement with an agency’s formal determination of no adverse effect for a project.”
The BLM said its report was generated ahead of the March oil and gas lease sale. Disagreement with the agency’s report arose from Friends of Cedar Mesa, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and WildEarth Guardians.
It is the BLM-Utah’s standard practice to share general cultural resource documentation in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the BLM said, which is shared with the public through the BLM’s website when it is determined that the release of the information does not pose a threat to cultural resources.
The BLM confirmed that some of the information that had been shared in its report was later redacted.
“BLM archaeologists carefully reviewed and considered the original documents posted to the BLM ePlanning site,” Bryant said. She said the archaeologists also reviewed the documents that were re-posted with the additional redactions. “Changes were made as a courtesy, in response to comments from a consulting party.”
Josh Ewing, executive director for Friends of Cedar Mesa, told Reveal, “It did catch me by surprise … [The BLM] went to a level with this report that was very unusual in terms of listing site numbers and descriptions by parcel that I haven’t seen before.”
The Moab Sun News contacted Reveal to asked for its response to the BLM’s July 23 statement that it had not “mistakenly” released the information.
In response, Reveal sent the following statement on July 23: “We stand by our story. The report was redacted to remove sensitive information that is not supposed to be divulged. We asked the BLM for their response to the fact that all the consulting parties told us that the agency had mistakenly published the report in its entirety, which violates federal rules and agreements with the consulting parties to protect confidential, sensitive information. We quoted their response, attributed to Nate Thomas, the BLM’s head archaeologist in Utah: ‘BLM replaced the first report with (a) redacted copy of the report that removed the nature and location of archaeological sites to prevent looting and vandalism at these sites.’”
“That’s a big screw up,” Paul Reed, an archaeologist with the nonprofit Archaeology Southwest, told Reveal. “If you were a pot hunter wanting to work in southeastern Utah and knew about the lease process, that would have been a gold mine for you.”
Reveal said in its July 12 article that the BLM’s report, without the redactions, provided “Smithsonian Trinomial” catalog information on relics located within “the 43 parcels in Utah that the BLM auctioned to oil and gas companies.”
On July 23, the BLM maintained that the report did not endanger or provide specific location information for cultural sites.
The BLM said the original document posted was carefully reviewed for meeting the requirements of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, Section 9, and is “not aware of any cultural sites being impacted by either document posted to the lease sale ePlanning project page.”
The Moab Sun News contacted Thomas, the BLM Utah archaeologist quoted in the Reveal story, on Tuesday, July 24, to ask him if he was quoted accurately. Thomas said that he is aware of the Reveal story and would discuss the Moab Sun News’ inquiry with public affairs.
Bryant followed up with a response and wrote, “The information the BLM provided yesterday (on July 23) is accurate and factual. I confirmed with Nate Thomas, his quote was used out of context in the article you referenced in your inquiry.”
Agency published, then redacted, information