Any seasoned outdoor ethics aficionado knows to ‘leave what you find’ when it comes to obvious historical artifacts such as Native American arrowheads or spear tips. We of course want all those who come behind us to have that same experience of discovery and these items are important clues to archeologists and other scientists who are attempting to learn more about our pre-history.
We also know that we need to pack out our trash, and that it is even encouraged to remove the trash of less enlightened recreationists who have come before us. But what about the gray areas… old rusty cans, glassware that doesn’t resemble anything you’ve seen on a store shelf in your lifetime or even dilapidated buildings. Spend enough time exploring Nevada’s backcountry and you are bound to run into these types of things.
I have personally been on several volunteer clean-up projects, removing trash from otherwise pristine public lands. Some of these sites that have been cleaned-up have been used on and off as dumping sites for the past 100 years. Along with the camaraderie of volunteering at these events always comes discussion about the historical value of what may be classified as trash or what may be an archeological treasure. If you have been to such an event or even if not, you may have heard of a rule that any item on public lands more than 50 years old is protected by law. The complaint I often hear, and have surely voiced myself, is that in 2012, is this law meant to protect tuna tins and soda cans discarded by disrespectful travelers in 1962?
Well, instead of continuing to complain, I did some research. The first law designed to protect national archeological treasures was the Antiquities Act of 1906. Instead of boring you with all the details of these laws, I am including links for anyone suffering from insomnia. The one thing most people agree on is that the Antiquities Act was exceptionally vague; despite this; it has resulted in many conservation successes through the years including the designation of many National Landmarks and Monuments. It also got battered in court in a few high profile cases where looters won the right to retain certain items. This led to the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 or ARPA. This law more specifically defined what resources were protected and allows criminal penalties for the taking of items which are more than 100 years old from public lands without proper permits. The third major law that comes into play for this topic is the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Along with being the act that led to the National Register of Historic Places, this law adds protection for certain items which are more than 50 years old… ah, here is the culprit for the 50 year rule.
Now, there may be room for debate on the spirit of these laws, as in 1979, 100 years old excluded much of modern European history in Nevada, but we still need to be respectful of them. Consider this; many sites in Nevada, such as certain springs, have been important to the full range of human inhabitants through the years. A 50 year old glass bottle that you find today may be unsightly, but indicates at least 50 years of use at that site. If people have been visiting a site for 50 years, they may have been for 150 years, or even 5,000 years. The 5,000 year old trash that was left behind could be buried under a few feet of sediment or bat guano in the case of Lovelock Cave. The importance of these sites can only be determined by professional archeological investigation and interpretation, so if there is ever any doubt about the trash you are picking up, remember it could lead to the discovery of a real treasure and you can always check with your local land management agency for guidance. So go, discover treasure and have fun out there!