BLM officer detains family 5 hours for picking up rocks

Tombstone Tumbleweed
as posted in Sierra Times


On January 3, 2004, two Bureau Of Land Management agents detained four adult residents of Whetstone and their three children for five hours for picking up rocks. The incident, which led to all three adults being ticketed for illegally removing archeological resources, occurred at the Charleston Road Bridge, intersecting the San Pedro Riparian Natural Conservation area. Rachel Howard, Steven Howard and Jim Brown face fines of up $2,000 and possible jail time if convicted of removing archeological resources from a protected area. The three adults must appear for a mandatory court date in March at the Federal Building in Tucson.

Bill Childress, Manager of the Riparian field office in Sierra Vista, Arizona offers this information.

“Our officers are in charge of protecting public lands. We have had eight incidents since September of people in violation of removing artifacts from our sector of the San Pedro Riparian area. We have incidents all the time, and it’s a constant issue for our officers to educate the public about the rules. We have so few officers that it is always just being in the right place at the right time,” Childress told The Tumbleweed in a phone interview.

Childress continued, “People always take liberties when they are hiking; they think, out of sight, out of mind. It’s important for the public to know about these rules. It is a constant chore to educate the community. This is a good time to remind people that it is a felony to collect or remove artifacts from federal lands of any kind; that includes BLM and U.S. Forest Service Lands. Even if the land is owned privately you can’t touch the resources and you must have the proper permits to conduct research.”

Childress stated that he did not have all the details of the incident but was confident Officer Cook acted appropriately. “Cook knows a great deal about the area and typically shares this with the public. We hope to develop some interpretive guided tours of the area led by some of the officers who work the area. This would help the public and develop a relationship with the community,” said Childress.

“I knew officer Larson, we had met before and he’s really easy to talk to – but I couldn’t believe this guy Cook, he could have been a lot nicer. I mean, we had small children with us, they wouldn’t let my kids or me go to the bathroom, my kids were hungry dirty and tired from the long hike and then we had to wait there for five hours,” recalled an exasperated and emotional Rachel Howard.

As Brown and the Howards’ retold the story, they realized they learned a lesson the hard way; “I think I realize that not knowing the law basically makes us all a criminal. There were no signs, no warnings, nothing to alert people they were committing a serious crime,” explained Jim Brown. The group parked on the south side of Charleston in the paved parking area at the bridge. The three adults admit they were out for a hike with their children who love to collect rocks. “You know how kids are –they love to pick up everything. My kids love to collect rocks, especially my daughter.”

“We were going to see the picture in the rocks - that’s what I called it for my kids, of the rock formation with pictographs, “explained Rachel Howard. We hiked to the area called Millville; we reached the area about 1 p.m. and we walked around the area for almost an hour. On our way back we noticed someone dressed in hunting type clothes he had a mask on and seemed to be watching us,” Howard recalled.

Steven Howard shares what happened next. “When we reached the lot he (Officer Larson) was waiting for us. Well the one agent came across the parking lot at us and said, my buddy (partner) saw this stuff in the back of your friend’s truck and he wants you to wait here until he gets back. We didn’t know what to do at then other than just do what the officer asked, we didn’t know what we had done for this to happen. It took 45 minutes for him (officer Grady Cook) to arrive at the parking lot,” Steven told The Tumbleweed.

In the meantime Rachel and Steven engaged in small talk with Officer Larson while waiting for Cook’s arrival on the scene. Jim Brown, his wife Crystina, their daughter Donna, age 7, Steven and Rachel Howard and their two children Joshua, age 8, and daughter Tristen, age 7, were also forced to empty their pockets and had backpacks searched. “The children finally fell asleep in the cars as they were forced to wait for five hours, past dinner time, they had nothing to eat and they were hungry; I asked the officers if I could take my kids home and they said no!, this is a very serious matter. That’s not right,” said Howard.

“Here’s a situation, we go to do something with our kids, as a family. Instead of having my kids sit in front of the TV, our family likes to go out hiking and enjoy nature. Then we run into a jerk like this and now my kids are afraid of police officers from this one terrible incident. They kept asking, why are the police so mean, and they wondered, were we going to be arrested and have to go to jail?”

“Most Likely the officers were alerted by the articles in the back of the truck,” said Bill Childress. The suspicious articles in the back of Browns’ truck were books on pictographs and Indian culture books, shovels and a screen box, the kind that could be used in sifting dirt. (note: Cook took all items including books. rt)

If you’re a person who likes to know the rules then pay attention to the rest of this story – it may save you from a strong-arm run-in with federal law enforcement agencies.

During this investigation The Tumbleweed spoke with dozens of other local residents who share the same frustration about speed traps and “over the top” - “in your face” type encounters with BLM Rangers. Some have had enough; some of the people interviewed said they plan on filing complaints with the department.

What you may think of as public lands, are not that at all. The “lands” belong to the federal government. And they like to remind you of that fact. Typically, the public, think of these officers as ambassadors, or nature and history docents. However, a dramatic increase in criminal activity on public owned (federal) lands, has led to officers of BLM taking a much tougher approach to policing the lands. At this point it seems, at least initially, that they approach everyone they encounter, with suspicion.

In Cochise County the border is an acute national security problem that invites crime from around the world. Hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands - National Parks, BLM and state lands stretch along the Arizona border with Mexico, yet agents are told not to approach groups of migrants and drug dealers, they are instructed to call in other agencies, namely Border Patrol to assist.

The public assumes the agents are assigned to act as stewards of the lands and natural resources – not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to those who wish to trash the land and who wish to rob historical sites. It is a shame to think we need a special police force to insure the lands are protected from citizens. Be careful of walking on federal lands; our government will protect the land from it’s citizens with much more fervor than it will it’s international borders from an invasion of people from foreign lands. It is up to you to know the rules; ignorance is not an excuse.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, containing about 40 miles of the Upper San Pedro River is managed to protect and enhance the desert riparian ecosystem. The word riparian refers to an area where plants and animals thrive because of an availability of water, either at or near the soil surface. The San Pedro Riparian NCA is known internationally for its bird life that attracts thousands of birdwatchers from all over the world each year. More than 100 species of breeding birds and another 250 species of migrant and wintering birds occur in the area, representing roughly half the number of known breeding species in North America.

The area is also heavily traveled by illegal aliens and drug smugglers who damage plant life and leave thousands of pounds of trash and human waste in their wake. Many visitors to the same area have complained about being startled by groups of people who have illegally entered the United States. It seems rock hounds are more of a threat and are dealt with aggressively. BLM spokesperson Bill Childress stated that” rockhounds” or collectors really should know where they can and should know they cannot remove artifacts. Some sties even require permits for photographing or other research type studies.

The BLM also gives these suggestions and warnings to the public and to collectors on their website.

“Rockhounding is the collection of reasonable amounts of mineral specimens, rocks, semi-precious gems, petrified wood and invertebrate fossils. Invertebrate fossils are the remains of animals that didn't have bones such as shellfish, corals, trilobites and crinoids. The material collected must not be sold or bartered. Arizona has many localities and varieties of collecting material. Not all varieties are found on public lands.

Collecting of mineral and fossil resources is prohibited in certain areas being managed under special designation to protect their scientific and natural values, such as Research Natural Areas. You may not collect any artifacts, ancient or historical, on public lands without a permit. This includes arrowheads or flakes, pottery or potsherds, mats, rock art, old bottles or pieces of equipment and buildings. These items are part of our national heritage and scientists are still learning much from them. Human burial remains on both public and private land are protected by federal and state law from being collected.”

Rocks, minerals and semiprecious gemstones may be collected on public lands managed by the BLM without charge or permit as long as:

1. The specimens are for personal use and are not collected for commercial purposes or bartered to commercial dealers.

2. You may collect reasonable amounts of specimens. In Arizona, BLM sets the "reasonable" limits for personal use as up to 25 pounds per day, plus one piece, with a total limit of 250 pounds per year. These limits are for mineral specimens, common invertebrate fossils, semiprecious gemstones, other rock, and petrified wood.

4. Collection does not occur in developed recreation sites or areas, unless designated as a rockhounding area by BLM.

5. Collection is not prohibited or restricted and posted.

6. Collection, excavation or removal are not aided with motorized or mechanical devices, including heavy equipment or explosives. Metal detectors are acceptable, with the exception of the San Pedro National Conservation Area.

BLM Arizona manages some of Arizona's best-preserved prehistoric and historic sites, which span the human occupation in North America. These include two mammoth kill sites, remnants of a Spanish military fort, and Indian dwellings more than 1,000 years old. Also, more than 514,000 acres of Arizona public lands have been inventoried with 8,470 properties recorded.

Any individual or organization wanting to perform specific archeological or paleontological fieldwork, such as survey, excavation or site conservation, following the receipt of their approved Cultural Resource Use Permit. This form requests specific information on the location, schedule and nature of the archeological fieldwork and allows BLM to communicate specific constraints on a project type, schedule or location. An approved Field Use Authorization might notify permittees of seasonal road closures near the project area, advise them of potentially conflicting activities, such as game hunting near the project area, require permittees to avoid sensitive species habitat near the project area, or advise permittees on seasonal fire restrictions.

BLM agents can often be seen lurking along roadsides near the San Pedro River in Cochise County, Arizona. Now we know they mean business. Local residents should consider the consequences when entering state and federal lands. These lands are protected by many rules and regulations; be sure and check the BLM and other government websites. Keeping public lands in the hands of the public is fine as long as the public keeps their hands off the land. This incident proves that activities as innocent as a child picking up pretty rocks, can get you in big trouble.



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