John Husband, director of the Bureau of Land Management Little Snake field office, said he didn't know if the off-roaders knew they had found an archaeological site or not. But either way, they churned up the site's sandy soil, potentially destroying irreplaceable scientific data.
In response to the damage, the BLM is moving to limit vehicle access to the area around the archaeological site.
Most of the site is eligible for protection as a nationally registered site, Husband said. That means he and his agency have an obligation to protect it.
"Our first priority is to protect the site. Our second is to let the public know what we're doing," Husband said.
The habitation site covers as much as 125 acres and overlooks Lodore Canyon, said BLM archaeologist Hal Keesling. It was originally discovered when the BLM was studying the area during the permitting process for a Union Cellular tower that would improve cell phone reception around Browns Park.
Keesling said he has found ground stone artifacts and fire features at the site. The portion of the site that has been studied is now ineligible for national registry. The rest of the site can still be protected, because it has yet to yield scientific data. Because it is time consuming and expensive to study these sights, the BLM cannot afford to study the entire site at this time, Keesling said.
Husband said the BLM is working on a plan to restrict motor vehicle access to the site, but the restriction shouldn't be much of a problem because the site "is not some place people go every weekend." The area was not designed for off-road use in the first place, and a gate has been placed on the new road leading to the cellular tower site.
Keesling said people would still be able to walk or ride horses to the site. He encouraged visitors exploring the area on foot to leave any artifacts they find so future visitors can enjoy the same experience.
As a secondary consideration, access to the site is being limited because the area is home to one of Colorado's sensitive plants, Debeque milkvetch.
This form of milkvetch is only known to exist in 80 locations in the United States, Keesling said. It is an annual that blooms in the spring, with shallow roots that allow it to easily blow away in the wind.
Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.