By Scott Sonner -- Associated Press
RENO, Nev. (AP) - U.S. Forest Service officials never believed John Ligon's claim that he dug up three boulders etched with American Indian petroglyphs four years ago to put them in his front yard for safekeeping.
But they did share a concern he voiced that someone would steal the centuries-old rock art on national forest land a few football fields away from a growing housing development. After they recovered the stolen property, federal land managers struggled for years with the question of what to do with the rock etchings of a bighorn sheep, an archer, a lizard and a wheel.
Now, after initially thinking it was best to place them in a state museum, the agency - in consultation with local tribal leaders - has decided to return them to the mountainside where they were for perhaps as long as 1,000 years before they were disturbed.
''It belongs out there,'' said Lynda Shoshone, cultural resources director for the Washoe Tribe in Nevada and California. She and others said removing the petroglyphs from the site takes them out of their spiritual context.
''I realize it is a tough decision on our part because we don't want it to be damaged any more than it has been,'' Shoshone said. ''But I've come to the conclusion that maybe the more we educate John Q. Public at the sites, the more they will help us preserve stuff like this.''
The theft of the petroglyphs on the northwest edge of suburban Reno garnered national attention at the time and still reverberates through the community.
''The significant assault on Native American memories and cultural items is as bad as walking into a Catholic church and taking a cross off the wall,'' said Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
Archaeologists believe the rock pile where the drawings were located was a hunting blind where 800 to 1,000 years ago tribesmen lay in wait for deer and elk migrating from Peavine Peak toward the Truckee River valley below.
The site is visible three miles away from the upper floors of the federal courthouse in downtown Reno where the accused looters stood trial in 2003.
Under an agreement with local tribes, the Forest Service intends to return the petroglyphs to that spot this fall, along with fences around the rocks and interpretive signs.
''It is the right thing to do,'' said Fred Frampton, a Forest Service archaeologist for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
Frampton and others in his position didn't always feel that way.
As those legally responsible for protecting the artifacts under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, federal land managers have been wary of returning such items to the field. They've been even more squeamish about publicizing the sites on maps and downright fearful of marking them with interpretive signs.
''Putting up a sign at an archaeological site is almost like saying, 'Dig here for buried treasure,''' Frampton said in an interview during the trial.
That's why the agency originally planned to curate the artifacts until tribal leaders raised objections.
''We thought, maybe we should look at an alternative plan to stuffing them in the back storage room of a museum. I think it is a rare instance that you can restore a site,'' Frampton said.
Not that he doesn't still have some concerns.
''A sign protects a place from law-abiding people. It doesn't protect the site from the non-law-abiding people,'' he said. ''On the other hand, if there is no sign, how would the public know it is illegal to do something to the site?''
Ligon of Reno and co-defendant Carroll Mizell of Van Nuys, Calif., admitted they used a winch to haul the 300-pound boulders into a pickup. But they insisted when they were arrested that all they wanted to do was protect the artifacts. They said they had no idea they were on national forest land, let alone prohibited from removing the petroglyphs.
In the end, their motivation had nothing to do with their guilt or innocence. After the federal jury in Reno convicted them of theft of government property, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict partly because the Justice Department failed to prove the men knew or should have known what they were stealing was of archaeological value.
The two men ended up paying civil fines totaling $21,523 - money that is being used to finance the site's restoration.
Ligon could not be reached for comment, but his Reno lawyer said Ligon was pleased the site was being fully restored with new protections.
''We paid a civil penalty for their restoration and as a consequence, we are in essence paying for their return,'' Scott Freeman said. ''We're also very glad they are going to put interpretive signs up there. That would help prevent future misunderstandings.''
It's not been determined to what extent the site will be marked, or where the signs will be placed. Part of the plan calls for cooperation from local stewards who've received training to help monitor such sites.
The first step in reaching an agreement was to contact each of the three active tribes in the area - the Washoes, Lake Pyramid Paiutes and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
''From the colony's standpoint, we wanted to make sure they were either returned to the site with some education to the public or that an appropriate tribe would receive them back,'' said Michon Eben, cultural resources manager for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
Tribal leaders said disregard for such sites is all too commonplace.
''We've seen places where people shoot those types of rock art and petroglyphs with rifles for target practice,'' said Ben Aleck, Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal cultural director.
Shoshone said the problem is cultural.
''It is really hard to educate a society that has no culture here in the United States - our land. They left it in Europe,'' she said. ''But when we teach fourth-graders about things like this, they are going to teach their parents.''
While the agency doesn't keep detailed records, Will Reed, leader of the Forest Service's regional heritage program based in Ogden, Utah, can't recall a similar restoration effort on public lands in the West.
''We have had some instances where people have stolen individual panels off of rock art locations,'' Reed said, pointing to a case in Utah where a group of Boy Scouts helped repair damage to defaced rock panels.
''But this situation in Nevada is one that is extraordinary for involving not just the return of the artifacts, but a restoration of the site. This kind of stealing a hundred-pound boulder just doesn't happen,'' said Reed, whose region covers all of Nevada and Utah as well as parts of Idaho, Colorado and California.
He said returning the petroglyphs is a ''calculated risk.''
''But we're hoping part of the benefit of this whole episode comes in public education and people helping to keep an eye on them,'' he said.
Frampton said it was a tour of the site with tribal leaders this spring that convinced him putting the petroglyphs back on the mountain might work despite the encroaching housing development.
On their way to the site, a Forest Service law officer approached in an unmarked vehicle and asked what they were up to. Since he'd never been to the site, they invited him to join them.
Later, the officer's cell phone rang. It was another law officer explaining that a neighbor watching the site had called about the activity there.
''That made me feel comfortable enough to feel if we put these back with some signs and interpretation,'' Frampton said, ''that this site might become the poster child, if you will, for educating the public about protection of our history and our past and at the same time allow them to enjoy the site.''
''So yeah, I consider we still run the risk that when we put signs up and tell people about it there could be more vandalism and more thefts. But we now have more eyes and ears out there helping us patrol the land,'' he said.
''It may be our savior in the end - the people who are right next door.''