Wyo. boasts oil and gas and archaeological wealth

Wyo. boasts oil and gas and archaeological wealth

The oil and gas boom of the West has also opened vast lands to discoveries by an unlikely group: archaeologists such as Kevin O’Dell.

With crews 100 feet apart, O’Dell and other archaeologists are walking thousands of acres of sagebrush highlands, valleys and hills, and they are achieving a remarkable increase in identification of prehistoric and historic sites – from those of ancient tribes to the homesteads of the last century.

The boom is occurring on federal property throughout the country because of the Bush administration’s push for more energy extraction on federal property, and laws that require cultural-resource surveys before any drilling.

At one site, postholes, charred seeds, and burned bones of small mammals were deemed remnants of dwellings from about 6260 to 2640 B.C. Bone fragments from a 7,290-year-old burial structure nearby are believed to belong to an old woman with severe arthritis who was laid to rest with a funerary offering of cactus.

Since 2000, the archaeologists have discovered so many sites – several thousand a year – that Wyoming has become the top state for new sites deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, said Tim Nowak of the Bureau of Land Management’s Wyoming office.

This year, 1,234 sites were considered eligible for the National Register, said Nowak, deputy preservation officer. Those discoveries came after archaeologists inventoried 121,494 acres in Wyoming, he said.

Wyoming State Historic Preservation Officer Sara Needles said her 13-person office could barely fathom the wealth of the archaeological findings.

The office doesn’t even have the time to nominate the most significant sites for the National Register, said Needles and her deputy, Mary Hopkins. Still, the very act of designating them historic or prehistoric provides legal protection, they said.

Some energy companies consider the gamut of federally required surveys a burden. Archaeological surveys can cost $100,000 for a group of wells over three to four square miles and take six to 12 months to complete, partly because the archaeologists are so busy, said M. John Kennedy of Kennedy Oil in Gillette.

Sites that are older than 50 years, generally going back to 1720, are considered “historic” – a definition that Kennedy finds objectionable. A horse-watering tank or debris left behind by a sheepherders’ camp – as long as it’s more than 50 years old – will force a redirection in drilling plans, he said.

“We’re not talking about significant Indian ruins. We’re talking about junk from prior to the last 50 years,” Kennedy said. “It’s kind of crazy.”

To address such concerns, state preservation officers last year raised standards for recording a historic site. It now must have at least 50 items of “historic” age – up from two items, officials said.

Preservationists have their own objections to the process: inadequate resources to assess new sites.

Wyoming preservation officials are asking legislators to spend $2.25 million over the next four years for a comprehensive analysis of what is being found, which would serve as a time-saving guide in the federal review of drilling applications, Needles said.

For now, many of the archaeologists’ inventories and sketches are in databases and on shelves in Needles’ offices at the University of Wyoming, which O’Dell said conjured up the final warehouse scene of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The electronic data are available to academic researchers on a restricted Web site, Hopkins said. But preservationists want all of the material to be available, and to be analyzed.

“You put all this time and effort into it, and it’s just sitting on a shelf at the University of Wyoming,” O’Dell said. “Someday it will be synthesized. It’s not all for naught.”

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