Sensitive sites exposed

Rangers on the lookout for resource crimes as the decreased water level allows access to historically significant areas

Aaron Wright, a California State Parks superintendent who oversees the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area, shows some tools that were recently confiscated from illegal diggers. The water in the lake regularly reaches the tree line.

Aaron Wright, a California State Parks superintendent who oversees the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area, shows some tools that were recently confiscated from illegal diggers. The water in the lake regularly reaches the tree line.

Photo by Meredith J. Graham

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Cruising around Lake Oroville State Recreation Area on a recent afternoon, it was hard not to notice the striking disparity between where the water level usually sits—at the tree line—and where it is now. The continuing drought has done much to affect the reservoir, one of the state’s largest and a local hotspot for watersport enthusiasts, campers and hikers. But these days, the lake grounds are also attracting another group of people: scavengers.

“When the water level drops, a lot more archaeological sites and artifacts are made accessible,” explained Aaron Wright, the California State Parks superintendent who oversees Lake Oroville. “People are constantly going out and disturbing sites. It seems innocent enough to take a rock or an arrow point; they think nothing of it. But by taking it away, it takes away the context of it.”

Rocks and arrow points are just a small piece of the puzzle, however. When Lake Oroville was created in the 1960s, it took over a landscape rich in Native American and early settler history. Many sites of cultural significance lie under water most years, and when the water recedes they become suddenly vulnerable. Wright displayed some digging tools a ranger recently confiscated, and he said sometimes people will even attach chains to their trucks to remove whole segments of the landscape.

“Once it’s been moved and disturbed, you can’t get it back,” he said. “We’re protecting it for the next generation.”

A recent report in the Los Angeles Times brought attention to this issue facing Lake Oroville, but the problem is nothing new, Wright said. He took the superintendent post after working a similar job at Clear Lake just a few months ago, but he’s familiar with the area, having worked at Lake Oroville before and lived in the city for years.

“I’ve seen the water level lower than this within the past seven years,” Wright said. And he’s right. Charts on the California Department of Water Resources website show that the water in Lake Oroville dropped below current levels three times in the past decade, in 2007, 2008 and 2009. So, despite the fact that patrolling for looters gives park rangers another responsibility, there are measures in place to combat such activity.

Perhaps the most obvious measure to that effect is the California penal code, which has several provisions prohibiting the disturbance of sensitive sites. One states that, “No person shall remove, injure, disfigure, deface, or destroy any object of archaeological, or historical interest or value.” The charges are misdemeanors and can result in a fine of up to $10,000 and a year in jail.

Unfortunately, Wright said, he rarely sees people actually prosecuted for these so-called “resource crimes.” Prosecutors often have a hard time convincing a jury that taking an arrowhead or pulling a rock out of the hillside is worthy of such a fine or jail time, he said. More often, these criminals are charged with other offenses instead. For example, Wright said methamphetamine plays a big part in many people’s compulsions to go out digging—those people get drug-related charges rather than resource-crime charges.

The more effective measure, then, in ensuring the landscape and its history remain untouched comes in the form of volunteers. Trained and organized through the California Archaeological Site Stewardship Program, these volunteers—there are about 30 at Lake Oroville alone—serve as an extra set of eyes for Wright and his staff. They are not able to make arrests, but they also do not wear ranger uniforms, so they are less obvious while they are out observing. They keep logs of disturbed sites and suspicious people or vehicles, complete with descriptions and license plate numbers.

“We have an amazing group of volunteers,” Wright said. “The extra set of eyes for us is invaluable.”

Lake Oroville is a complicated beast. For many, it is a destination for boating and camping and kayaking. For others, especially in times of drought like these, it is an indicator of our scarce water resources. For others yet, it is a source of spirituality, history and pain. Digging up artifacts—particularly human remains—from ancient Native American village sites is a subject that hits close to home for Eric Josephson, tribal chairman of the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu.

“When the white man came in, he brought malaria that killed entire villages,” Josephson said. “We don’t know the names of all the villages that were here, and in some cases we don’t even know where the villages are.”

What Josephson does know, however, is that much of his people’s history is still lying beneath the water of Lake Oroville, and beneath the soil that is now exposed.

“We were taken out of there twice,” he said, referring to first malaria killing many of the Maidu and then to roundups in which the native people were forced to leave their villages. “Everything we have is down there to be picked up right off the surface of the ground.”

For Josephson, burial grounds are the most important finds. While several cemeteries were located and excavated before the reservoir was created, he believes there are still others yet to be discovered. He urges caution, and requests that any discoveries be reported rather than disturbed.

“If we can get the public to identify the places that they find, that would be wonderful,” he said. “For us to go out there and start taking people around, we’ve done that—the state of California has an awful lot of information from us.”

One bit of information he said he will not reveal is the location of one of the most important villages for the Konkow Valley Indians—the spiritual village of Weluda.

“It’s usually under Lake Oroville’s water, but it’s probably exposed right now. Different people have said the water keeps the spirits from returning to their graves,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing that we can get back to the head spiritual place, where all the big creatures came from in our spirit stories.”