But Some Middle Ground Apparent
Forest Service, Detectorists Agree:
The 'Other Guy' Should Shape Up

  By Steve Miller
  copyright 1996, Electric Nevada

In the discord between Western metal detector hobbyists and the U.S. Forest Service, there's no shortage of solutions offered.
True, the proposed answers from each side usually have to do with the other side seeing the error of its ways -- or at least behaving better.
But as the conflict begins to be explored, there may be the faint outlines visible of some possible middle ground.
Dick Markley, top archaeologist for the Tahoe National Forest, acknowledges that the very structure of the U.S. Forest Service -- unelected bureaucrats administering great chunks of Western lands and answerable only to other faceless bureaucrats on the other side of the country -- is a problem for communities in the West.
Yet he still finds it puzzling that many Westerners don't automatically come and ask for instructions before going into national forests with their metal detectors. That, he thinks, would be a big help.
"I think the general principle is," he says, "if someone is going to go out and pursue a general activity, a hobby -- whether it's motorcycle riding, metal detecting, or rock collecting, or what have you -- they bear the responsibility to go find out what are the rules governing their activity.
"Are there any open areas that are open, or closed; are there any requirements?"
In Markley's view, "the responsibility ...falls on the person who is going to go out and do that activity, to go inquire and find out, 'where are the areas I can do this; what are their rules regarding it?'
On the other hand, Ron Stockman, who runs the non-profit Mother Lode Research Center and is active in the defense of detectorist rights, sees the fundamental problem as the Forest Service's unwillingness to actually tell hobbyists where they should not go.
"Say you're a detectorist, and you go in there [to a ranger headquarters] on a Saturday morning, and you're very open and honest, and you say 'Look, I'm up here to do some detecting; I don't want to get into any archaeological or historical sites. Can you tell me where to go?'
"What happens is, they will say -- this has been the normal case -- they will say, 'We can't tell you that.' And you as a detectorist, might say, 'Well, I'm trying to stay out of the areas.'
"'Well, if we tell you the areas where you can go, then you will be able to figure out the areas where you're not supposed to be in, and you'll go there.'
Markley admits the Tahoe National Forest is reluctant to identify "no-go" areas. However, he doesn't seem to register the apparent conflict between that posture and the requirement that detectorists find out where they should not go.
"We have not identified areas that are closed to metal detectors, mainly because there are a lot of legitimate uses for metal detectors, and so we've resisted closing any areas," he says.
"But the burden falls upon the detectorist to know what the rules are, and to know that if they get into old mining sites, and old cabin sites, and anything that might be historical, it's incumbent on them to find out whether or not that is something that is a historical site and therefore off limits, or it's something that they can continue to work in.
"And too, if we were to put a list of all the places that are closed, that's just an open invitation. Those are the places that obviously are going to be a treasure map for people to go to, to go dig into archaeological sites."
If Forest Service policy is self-contradictory, Ron Stockman thinks it's intentionally so.
"You really have to look at the policy they have in place [to see] why they can't have the public find out about it," he says.
"If they come out and say, 'Yes, we consider every cabin a site, whatever, whatever,' they know what that's going to sound like to the public."
So Stockman doesn't expect the Forest Service to make any changes in its policy on its own. In his view, it's up to detectorists and folks like himself to get the public to understand what is going on in the national forests. That, he thinks, would be a big step forward.
"One of the things we always try to get people to understand is part of the basic human makeup. Let's face facts; most of us, if we didn't have to put up with something, we'd just as soon NOT put up with it.
"Well, the Forest Service people are no different. They want to go out there and they want to do their job and they don't want to be bothered. And the archaeologists, and historians, want it all to themselves. So actually, it's not that they're really such big bad people, it's just that it ... makes lands easier to manage if you don't have to put up with one particular group. No matter what that group is, it just makes it easier for you to manage."
As part of its public education campaign, Stockman's Mother Lode Research Center is asking detectorist groups all over America to get their local Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management officials to answer a specific list of questions about their archaeological site policies.
"We already know there are problems all over the country," says Stockman. "We already know who's causing them and why. And what we want to do is put together a national record, before we go to Washington to show lawmakers up there what's going on here."
When friendly lawmakers in Washington, D.C. see this is a severe nationwide problem, he says, "we can move to have policy changes made in the public land management agencies -- and more or less curtail the power that the archaeologists and historians have, which is really running amuck."
In mid-September, officers of Reno's Silver State Treasure Hunters club wrote John Skinner, supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest, and asked for written answers to the MLRC list of ten questions. In mid-October Skinner's office responded, saying it was working on the list.
"We've sent them a note," archaeologist Markley told Electric Nevada , "and said, 'Bear with us; we're putting together the information for you.'"
Louis Test, the attorney who represented "John," the detectorist whose story was told in installments one and two of this series, says that both the Forest Service and the hobbyists need to directly focus on the problem.
Right now, he says, the Forest Service is "gun shy" because of the avalanche of protests that came in when Stockman put out word on the Internet of what the Forest Service was doing in the case of "John."
Nevertheless, the federal agency should follow through with pledges they made to develop informational programs so the people know "what they can or can't do, out there in the field," he says.
Although Test's client, wanting to end his case as soon as possible, chose to plead no contest, the attorney believes the Forest Service would be well-advised to re-draft its key regulations, if it ever hopes to win a case actually fought in the courts.
For one thing, in the current Forest Service system, "there is no real determination of what is, or is not, of historical significance," and for another, "these archeological sites are not marked.
"So how can a person identify whether he's out there picking up something of historical significance if he has no idea he's in a historical area?"
Test acknowledges "the Forest Service is kind of caught between a rock and a hard spot: they're worried about people going out and plundering these sites...if they specifically identify them as ... archaelogical site[s].
"Those are the bad guys; people shouldn't go out and do that. But by the same token, you can't put up a sign that says, 'No bulldozer, no tractor activity, in this area' and expect people to realize that that's an archaelogical area."
Another reasonable >change, he says, would be to allow for warnings, sometimes, rather than citations.
"The Forest Service doesn't really have any
Top of page

warning procedures, where they could issue, like, a warning ticket and say, 'If you do this, this is a possible violation of federal rule 611 or 616,' you know, or whatever it may be, so that people are cautious in the future. The only thing the Forest Service can do now is issue a citation," he says.
That situation contributes to polarization between hobbyists and the federal agency because "you have some law enforcement officers out there that, I think, don't have a problem issuing citations when people make a minor mistake or error..."
"I don't think Congress intended the regulations to be written in that form... And I think they should be changed, or clarified."
Test says that even within the Forest Service itself there are many misconceptions "as to what can or cannot be done." Therefore, he says, the Forest Service needs to educate not only the public but its own people.
To make sure the Forest Service actually makes such needed reforms, says the attorney, people who are concerned will probably have to do something.
"I'm encouraging people to get more involved with these programs the Forest Service is talking about -- because if you don't like what they're doing, and you feel they are encroaching upon our freedoms to use the public lands, then you can go back to your legislators and say, 'Here it is; I experienced it first hand.'"
Test narrated a possible conversation a citizen could have on the issue with Nevada's U.S. Senator Richard Bryan:
"'Dick, when you were growing up in Las Vegas, or when you were up here in Reno, you didn't worry about whether you picked up a pine cone when you were out in the forest. But now we got to worry about that. And I don't think that's what you intended. I don't think there's a lot of people in the Forest Service who intended it that way, but some of them are interpreting it that way.'
"'So let's get back to .. the medium ground that's made this country great, and not the polarization on each end of it, because somebody's stretching the law to fit their own needs, and not the needs of the public.'"
Markley, the Tahoe National Forest's top archaeologist, says he, too, regrets the polarization that has occurred. Alive to the feeling of detectorists that they are being shut out of the forests, he speaks almost wistfully of a day when some areas might be certified as okay for the hobbyists.
"What I'd really like to see eventually someday -- and I'm not really sure how we could do it -- would be to actually designate areas for metal detecting," he told Electric Nevada.
"I mean. there are archaeological sites where we have gone in and done our archaeological work and determined either the site is not significant, or we have recovered the archaeological values from it, but there are still things that would be of interest to collectors.
"What really needs to happen is to figure out some way to kind of provide for that kind of designation of areas, somehow manage that kind of a use."
But with Forest Service archaeologists already stretched pretty thin, he says, hobbyists probably shouldn't get their hopes up.
"Most of our archaeologists are involved in going out and searching for sites that are within areas where development activities are going to occur -- timber sales, road projects, campground development and so on," says Markley. Some 90% of Tahoe National's program is going out to identify sites that may be at risk of being damaged by development activities, he says.
"We'd like to evaluate a lot more, but in this day and age of less government, one of the things that we get less of, is money to do that kind of work.
"So in the practical sense, we're not going to be able to march right through and evaluate all these sites. But there are places that probably could be made available.
"It's hard to say ...how destructive the metal detecting and digging could be, [and] there might be other kinds of environmental concerns. But it's one of those things that it seems to me hasn't been explored. And that maybe there are opportunities for some partnerships with detector groups."
While Markley is open to the theoretical possibility of designating sites where detectorists can ply their favorite pastime, when it comes right down to it, he still believes the best solution is for detectorists to simply give up most of their collecting activities and use their detectors to assist Forest Service archaeologists like him on site studies.
Asked if the Forest Service is essentially trying to impose a new consciousness on Westerners about western land, he points out that ARPA -- the Archaeological Resources Protection Act -- "goes back to 1979, so it's not really new." But he then says, "Well, it has been an evolution ... It is a change.
"There was a time when, especially out in Nevada, gosh, it was just -- I mean, people went out and did ..." His voice trails off and he starts again.
"Frankly, what's happened over time is a realization that, gosh, a lot of these places actually represent aspects of our collective heritage, and a lot of folks have decided that maybe going out there and picking up all the arrowheads, taking all the old mining equipment out of all the old mines, is really something that's a loss for all of us."
Where Markley waxes most enthusiastic is in discussing the possibility of detectorists coming on board to help the Forest Service in its archaeological projects.
"We have a really successful program that involves metal detector folks in archaelogical site studies and historical research on the forest. We've had literally hundreds of folks who've participated in that. So there's like, there's two different folks out there.
"I think there's those that have an interest in history, archaeology and find ways to get involved. And then we have others who don't want to ask the question, don't want to contact the office, and so then they end up getting in trouble, which is a rare occurrence."
He finds it interesting that Silver State Treasure Hunters is asking for answers to the MLRC questionnaire.
"We've had a number of their members participating in our metal detectors program, but I'm not certain that the current officers are aware of that," he says.
"We actually started this back in 1990, and so we've been doing it for seven years, and really have found, if you talk to the detectorists who participated, it's a great program, and if you talk to the archaeologists who participated, they have a whole new appreciation for metal detectors and metal detecting interests. Unfortunately ... what ends up getting the press is the one guy who manages to get crosswise with the rules.
"My experience is that in actuality the number of people who really want to collect just to have something to put in the box or on the mantel, is really a pretty small percentage. And what many, many of these folks have told me is that they would much rather be able to explore and participate and really get involved in helping understand more about history than they are in getting things for their personal collection.
"And so I'm encouraged by that... but I'm afraid that that other percentage of folks who really are treasure hunters -- and you say the Silver State Treasure Hunters are treasure hunters -- well, I would venture to guess the folks who are into personal collection and treasure hunting, are going to continue to probably be frustrated by these kinds of things that protect historical sites."

Want to share your opinion? Electric Nevada's comment page is open!

Back to Electric Nevada's front Page