- Bend Store
Hidden in the wild Book Cliffs of eastern Utah between the Tavaputs Plateau and the Green River's Desolation Canyon, Range Creek valley had no road access at all as late as the mid 20th century. A primitive road was built in 1947 to open up the canyon to cattle grazing. A few years later, a ranching family named Wilcox, long time residents of a nearby ranch, bought the valley to expand their cattle operation. It didn't take long for the new owners to notice the remote valley held an incredible concentration of ruins, artifacts, intact structures and other evidence that an ancient culture had long called the place home.
So Wilcox gated the road in 1951 and let it be known that visitors were not welcome at the ranch. He spent the next fifty years roaming the 4,000 acre spread, finding everything from mysterious rock art to the ruins of dwellings to food-storage structures so well preserved they still contained corn. He told me last week that a decade ago, while "chasing a lion" that was predating on his stock into an obscure part of the ranch, he stumbled onto a cluster of more than a dozen dwellings surrounded by arrowheads, pottery, beads and other artifacts. Wilcox knows more about this valley than anyone, the result of years working from one end of the valley to the other.
"The real importance of Range Creek," said BLM archeologist Smith, "is that here we have an entire system virtually untouched since the departure of its early residents. This place is so remote, and Waldo protected it so well, there is none of the usual looting and vandalism we often see in more accessible sites. Such a concentrated network of sites and artifacts over a 12-mile length of canyon can tell us so much more about how the Fremont people lived than any single site ever could. We will learn much about this culture from Range Creek."
"This place reflects an extraordinary state of preservation," said Utah state archeologist Kevin Jones, "largely because nobody has been allowed in here. So far, we've identified more than 250 sites in Range Creek, everything from pictographs to dwellings to artifact scatters. But in this long canyon, and its many side canyons, I do believe we will find thousands more. Thousands. A site this pristine is very rare. And we haven't even begun to dig yet. We're still trying to inventory what's lying around in plain sight. To find something of this scale, this well preserved, in this century, is almost unbelievable."
The Fremont people and the better known Anasazi thrived in the Southwest between 400 and 1300 AD. Sometime between 1250 and 1300, both of these desert dwelling cultures suddenly deserted their homes. "The reason for their departure remains a mystery," said Jones. "I'm hopeful that this trove of artifacts might give us some clues as to what happened around 700 years ago to bring an end to this culture."
Already, dozens of archeologists and students are at work in Range Creek, exploring the canyon for new sites, and carefully documenting the ones they already have found. The day I visited, three graduate students scrutinized the area around a cluster of pit houses, showing me bits of pottery and arrowheads just lying on the ground, marked by colored flags.
"Every time these crews go out," said Duncan Metcalfe, a Utah Museum of Natural History archeologist, "they find new sites. We're going to be busy here for a long time."
The archeology field workers have converted the former ranch house into a dormitory and laboratory for their work. From that base camp, they fan into the valley in search of artifacts, wandering through a virtual western paradise. Big cottonwoods and stands of Doug fir rise from the grassy river bottom, in sharp contrast to the surrounding escarpments of red rock. The enclosed valley is habitat for elk, deer, rare spotted owls, eagles, and one of the largest bear populations in Utah. Archeologist Duncan Metcalfe said he saw two buffalo wandering in the valley last week. Much more verdant than the arid valleys of southern Utah, Range Creek remains a beautiful place despite generations of cattle grazing. It's easy to see why the Ancient Ones chose this place to live.
But its future is now in doubt. The fact that Range Creek escaped the looting and vandalism of other nearby Fremont habitats, such as Nine Mile Canyon, owes to the independent thinking of Waldo Wilcox. As soon as Wilcox saw that his valley contained the remains of a large Fremont settlement, he took the decision to keep everyone out, "especially the media." So committed was he to protecting Range Creek, even archeologists, who suspected the valley held important artifacts, could not persuade Wilcox to allow them entry.
But as Wilcox grew older, the rancher realized he wasn't going to be around to protect Range Creek forever. So he approached the state to invite some experts to take a look. What they saw amazed them, and in a complicated transaction, San Francisco-based Trust for Public Lands purchased the hidden valley from Wilcox for $2.5 million, and turned the property over to the BLM. The BLM in turn gave primary responsibility for managing the place to Utah's Department of Natural Resources, and its Division of Wildlife Resources.
There are precedents. The BLM limits access into Grand Gulch, another location rich in remains of ancient cultures, by requiring permits and placing strict limits on how many are handed out. Other ideas under consideration for Range Creek are allowing access only in the company of a knowledgeable guide. A comprehensive management plan is scheduled to be announced by 2006.
Until then, hikers and devotees of the Southwest's ancient peoples should put preservation ahead of more personal motives, and refrain from trying to enter the area until a coherent management plan is in place."I hope all those agencies can come up with something good," said Waldo Wilcox, a worried look on his weathered face as he gazes out over a gaggle of excited journalists, eager to spill the wonderful secret he kept so well for so long.
"If they can't figure out a way to protect this place, then fifty years of my effort will all be for nothing."