Mission of the Bureau of Land Management:
“To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
During the summer of 2019, I had the opportunity to complete an internship through the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) as an Archaeologist Intern for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The internship through HACU is a stipend 11-week assignment, which can be applied at an undergraduate or graduate level. The HACU agency specializes in placing interns in a Direct Hire Authority (DHA) internship. DHA internships are a gateway to having a career in a federal agency noncompetitively after the acquirement of a bachelor’s or master’s degree. However, even though I worked at the Bureau of Land Management I was not employed through the federal agency. Instead, I was contracted through HACU to work in the Bureau of Land Management Field Office. Being a student in anthropology at Texas State University, I wanted to understand how anthropological specializations such as archaeology can be applied in a federally funded position. Additionally, as an intern I wanted to comprehend how federal agencies take steps to protect archaeological sites. The following report will discuss the daily operations of the BLM, duties of a federal archaeologist, and an assigned project that I completed in my 11-week internship.
In View of the Organ Mountains:
The Las Cruces District Office (LCDO) is located in Las Cruces, New Mexico, at the base of the rugged Organ Mountains and about 48 miles northwest of El Paso, Texas. The elevation of Las Cruces is roughly 3,900 feet. Temperatures during the summer average to about 95° Fahrenheit. However, the climate in Las Cruces was completely different than southcentral Texas. Las Cruces had low humidity and dry heat. Being from San Antonio, Texas, it was a welcomed change during the summer. The views were spectacular as well. I was greeted every day to and from the office with the beautiful appearance of the Organ Mountains.
The Bureau of Land Management is a multiuse federal agency that is responsible for maintaining public lands. This agency is also mandated by federal law to ensure compliance of federal policies. This also includes the stipulation of monitoring cultural resources forgoing the land status during a federal undertaking. Federal undertaking occurs when a project or activity is permitted by a federal agency. Permits for projects and activities are not easily acquired, however. Next, I will introduce the types of specialists that maintain the cultural and recreation stipulations at the Las Cruces District Office.
My internship position reported under the Cultural Resources and Recreation Management Department. This department housed specialists such as Outdoor Recreation Specialists, District Park Rangers, and Archaeologists. As an Archaeologist Intern, I primarily worked under district archaeologists. However, I also had the responsibility and opportunity to experience the different resources managed by the Bureau of Land Management through different specialists in the department. In the following section, I will discuss the roles of the different staff under the Cultural Resources and Recreation Department.
Outdoor Recreation Specialists (ORS) are responsible for issuing permits for land use, monitoring and maintaining Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), and monitoring recreational public events. Issuing permits can range from ATV trails, running trails, to hunting Persian Ibex. Each permit must be assessed carefully to determine the type of land the permittees will be using for their recreation. Permit determination varies on a case by case basis. ORS used programs such as Geographic Information System or GIS to view the areas of recreation to determine the permit eligibility.
Wilderness Study Areas are isolated pieces of land that are candidates for having characteristics of wilderness sustainability. The purpose of these areas is to keep them as natural and “wild” as possible. These perquisites note that these areas are not allowed for recreational uses such as motorized vehicles or activities that might cause disturbances to the environment. These restrictions to these areas maintain the integrity of the land and the wildlife.
The District Park Rangers (DPR) responsibility ranges tremendously in daily operations. They are responsible for the wellbeing of visitors and volunteers who visit and live on recreational sites that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. In addition to these daily duties, they also evaluate the visitor use of recreational sites and continuously monitor the condition of these sites.
The DPR also worked closely with District Law Enforcement. They performed similar duties such as monitoring recreation and archaeology sites. They also provide a law enforcement presence in these areas, document and report suspicious activity. And their presence also maintains peace among visitors and deters the potential act of vandalism. However, although District Park Rangers work alongside law enforcement they cannot issue citations.
Archaeologists are responsible for the cultural aspect of the department. Primarily, through surveying, monitoring, documenting, and assessing for different projects. Surveying was conducted when a new project was implemented to determine if the area that would be disturbed held any feature of archaeological significance. Site monitoring varied, from a cellular service proposing to lay down a fiber optic cable adjacent to archaeological sites to supervising the installation of a carport on previously disturbed land in a known petroglyph site.
Documentation was a fundamental part of an archaeologist job. Once a project was assigned, each survey was documented using specialized forms specific to the LCDO. Those survey reports would then be assigned a project and a New Mexico Cultural Resources Information System or NMCRIS number. These projects are then filed into fiscal years and placed into the cultural resources report filing bay.
Additionally, there are assessments of archaeological sites that occurred in the form of damage assessments. Damage assessments included the documentation of damaged or disturbed archaeological sites. Damage assessments are monitored continuously until the archaeological site can be restored. Restoration included a cleanup effort if the site can be recovered to its condition prior to being damaged.
Exploring the Field:
Although my main task consisted of being in the office filing paperwork (and being in front of a computer screen). My supervisor created opportunities for me to join state, district, and monument archaeologists on field investigations. However, I did not aid in field documentation. I was able to view the type of work they conduct and offer opinions, but I did not create or amend projects.
Being in the field with archaeologists consisted of a multitude of anthropological issues, such as minimizing damage disturbances of known sites and determining if intact artifacts from looted areas should be removed from context and sent for curation. This is all put into consideration along with the process of protecting the history, culture, and land that features archaeological sites.
This is all part of the process of maintaining archaeological sites, as a federally employed archaeologist. And complying with federal regulations to further the mission statement of the Bureau of Land Management, which is to, “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
The most interesting excursion I went on, was when I accompanied the state, district, and monument archaeologists to a remote archaeological site northwest of Steins, New Mexico. The area is known as Steins Cave and houses petroglyphs dating back to 500 C.E. (A.D). Steins Cave is also a highly looted area for sherds, flakes, tools, and projectile points. However, even though this area is highly looted, archaeologists still monitor and maintain this site in compliance with federal regulations.
The reason behind this excursion was to update a report of previous vandalism. The vandalism occurred in the form of graffitied initials about 6 meters from the petroglyphs in the cave. Due to the nature of the material used for the vandalism, a previous cleanup effort was employed. The archeologists had to reevaluate the area and document the status of where the vandalism once occurred. In conclusion, after the completion of the photo documentation and area evaluation, it was agreed among the archaeologists that this site did not need a second cleanup effort.
Duties as a Federal Archaeologist:
The Bureau of Land Management monitors several archaeological and historical sites which span 5.4 million acres of land. The motto among the archaeologists in the LCDO is that New Mexico is, “one big archaeological site.” The primary duties of the federal archaeologists are to help monitor, maintain, and evaluate sites. Surveying primarily occurs through a surface level evaluation. However, limited testing can be conducted systematically to understand features such as site hearths. Although complete disturbances are unavoidable when conducting field investigations, consideration for the minimization of disturbances is taken into account.
Avoid, minimize, and mitigate are three steps taken during field investigations if projects are moving forward in the approval process. The first step taken in an area with archaeological significance is to avoid the area, if possible. If avoidance is not achievable, the minimization of impact is evaluated by the archaeologist leading the investigation. If the first two steps are not possible, mitigation occurs in the form of data recovery. What that consists of varies on a case by case basis, and might even include moving the archaeological site.
However, contrary to popular belief, being a federal archaeologist is not overly consistent with fieldwork. “Fieldwork is considered to be 20% of the job duty,” as mentioned by one of the district archaeologists I reported to. Most work is bureaucratic and in conjunction with the priority of the understanding compliance of federal regulations when conducting field investigations. In fact, my first task as an Archaeologist Intern was to understand the importance of federal policies.
Policies such as Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). Section 106 of NHPA dictates when a federal undertaking occurs, historic properties of that land must be considered. NEPA is a consideration for the environmental impact that occurs when a project proposal is in the precursor stage. ARPA is a response to governing the excavation of archaeological sites and maintaining these areas for future generations. This also includes the importance of tribal consultation and the compliance of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA.
Into the Depths of Archaeological Projects:
I was tasked with organizing and creating a standard protocol for the Cultural Resource Department project reports. Although it is clerical, the purpose of documenting, organizing and filing these archaeological projects is not only to have to keep a record of the work completed by the assigned archaeologists but, to provide as a reference for future projects and field investigation planning. Additionally, I wanted to create a digital inventory that was easily accessible to multiple parties. I also noted that I would be working independently and unsupervised for large portions of my internship. So, I took into account that I would need to be analytical, have time management, and work efficiently.
I began working on my assignment. The first step I took was asking for feedback on the type of organization that would be beneficial to the department and contractors. Feedback was needed during this process to help me determine how projects would like to be accessed and the type of information pulled from these projects that would be needed in easy identification. The department discussed that not only did they need a physical organization of projects, but also a digital inventory as well. The requests made were simplistic and straight forward. However, I wanted to make projects accessible, trackable, and systematic.
From their feedback, I began separating loose comingled reports, correspondences, and miscellaneous paperwork into piles. From there, I was able to distinguish reports by the physical year. To begin the process of a digital inventory, I decided that documenting projects in the form of spreadsheets would be beneficial to the department. I created a Google Sheet that tracked projects dating as far back from 1978 to the present. This application would allow multiple users to view and edit data simultaneously. However, an internship isn’t complete without running into some challenges. When I arrived at the Las Cruces District Office, they were in a transition period of converting from Google applications to Office 365.
After the switch, I started to create priority tabs for information that needed to be pulled from projects. I pulled the following information in compliance with my supervisor and alternative project coordinator recommendations. These identifications would make project referencing easily accessible. These tabs included the date which the project was completed, project number, title of the report, consulting agency, NMCRIS number, and media type.
Project numbers were specific to the district office. To easily identify which district projects were conducted, I reviewed the first three digits of the project number. For example, project numbers were created in an ‘xxx-xx-xxxx” format. The second set of numbers determined the physical year the report was completed. And the last set documents the number of reports logged. However, each project did not always have every bit of information that was required in the priority tabs. To combat this, I marked projects digitally if they were missing information.
Completion of this project took 7 weeks out of my 11-week internship, leaving the last four weeks to organize the projects in the filing bay with physical year identification. I also marked the project and NMCRIS number on the top right of each project for easier access in the report filing bay. After this organization, I started to match correlating correspondences to the projects. These correspondences included maps, tribal consultations, consulting agency responses, project bids, project updates, and invoices. A large portion of this commingled information was difficult to match to a project. However, once I started identifying keywords, and understanding how to read quad maps the correlation for this paperwork was easier to pair with projects.
During the last four weeks of my internship, I was able to put my project into effect. For instance, I was asked by a senior district archaeologist for a project that was done in 2013. I was able to access my spreadsheet and located it with a few clicks of a button with just the abbreviation of the title from the report. This is just one of many examples where the functionality of my summer project was able to help the cultural resources department.
Although my specialization is not in archaeology, I am not one to turn down an opportunity. I am grateful for the experiences as an Archaeologist Intern working under the Bureau of Land Management. At first, I wasn’t sure if this internship position would suit me but if not for the position itself, I told myself to go for the experience. This discussion was received by my supervisor positively and she graciously provided opportunities for me to experience different departments within the LCDO.
This internship was advantageousness in the regard that I now have opportunities to apply for any federal agency under the Department of Interior (DOI) noncompetitively after I graduate. I also gained lifelong personal and professional relationships through this internship. Additionally, I had the pleasure of working with some of the most intelligent and passionate individuals who take pride in the work they’re doing daily.
My conception of being an archaeologist was naïve. As mentioned, field surveying is only about 20% of the overall duty. Most work is done bureaucratically and in compliance with federal regulations. Contrary to popular belief, archaeology is not discovering new archaeological sites it is mostly maintaining preexisting ones.
Although, I’m not positive if I want to work under the Bureau of Land Management. I understand that accepting a position in the federal government regardless of the agency it is a gateway to other opportunities that will lead me to what I’m passionate about. With the support of my team at the Las Cruces District Office, I am sure I will achieve just that.