Cultural sites offering evidence of Indigenous peoples’ presence are peppered across the Red Desert. Petroglyph panels, historic trade-route trails and at least one buffalo jump can be found in the austere landscape of buttes and badlands that unfolds across much of southern Wyoming.
Yufna Soldier Wolf, a Northern Arapaho tribal member who works as the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Wind River organizer, wants to see those sites — the currently mapped ones, and the lesser known — formally identified and better protected. The cultural resources created over the centuries by tribes including Shoshone, Ute, Bannock, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Lakota and Crow should be used to educate tribal youth and the public about the landscape’s historic significance for Indigenous peoples, she said.
The sites’ remote and often inhospitable environs create natural challenges to that goal. And while some of the sites are already designated as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern by the Bureau of Land Management, they remain vulnerable to vandalism and natural deterioration, Soldier Wolf said. She believes more can and should be done to preserve these places.
Her concerns echo a larger national criticism about the way the BLM designates ACECs — and the role tribes play in those decisions.
“A lot of times tribes get left out on determining what should be protected and why it should be protected,” Soldier Wolf said.
A forthcoming Resource Management Plan update by the BLM’s Rock Springs Field Office, however, may be an opportunity to change that. The RMP revision, which directs the office’s management of 3.5 million acres — much of it in the Red Desert — will be open to public input.
Because of that, the Red Desert could become a testing ground for the movement to better incorporate tribal co-management into federal lands policy.
An overdue plan
ACEC designations are used to protect important historical, cultural and scenic values or other natural resources, according to the BLM.
The agency weighs and determines ACEC designation during its land-use planning, said Brad Purdy, deputy state director of communications for the BLM Wyoming office. Because the Rock Springs RMP revision is underway, the window of opportunity is now open to submit ACEC candidates for the northern Red Desert, he said.
Conservationists and others have been waiting on that draft RMP for years. The office’s most recent RMP was signed in 1997. The current rewrite began in 2011, but has been beset by delays. In May, new BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning told WyoFile she spoke to the field office, and “made a commitment to them that we are going to get this thing out the door.”
Purdy echoed that urgency. “We are all dedicated to getting that thing out for public review,” he said, noting that “it has lingered for far too long.”
Soldier Wolf has not submitted any formal nominations; she says she has struggled to understand what inventories and resources the BLM already has. She is also wary of timeline promises.
“They keep saying they’re gonna bring out a new resource management plan,” she said. “But they never have.”
There are 48 designated ACECs in Wyoming, including several of the sites under Rock Springs Field Office management Soldier Wolf is concerned about. White Mountain Petroglyphs, Cedar Canyon, Oregon Buttes and Steamboat Mountain were all designated in 1997.
Still, a designation has not translated into adequate protection, Soldier Wolf said. She hopes to have a productive discussion with BLM Wyoming State Director David Archuleta about tribal involvement and how to more effectively protect and utilize the sites, she said.
There is still plenty of time to be involved with the RMP update process, Purdy said, because the release of the draft update triggers a public comment period.
“And that would be the time for anybody to submit comments,” Purdy said. “So again, I think we are in a fortunate place.”
One of Soldier Wolf’s goals is tribal co-management of lands historically stewarded by tribes. She would like to incorporate more Indigenous history into interpretive signs in the Red Desert, and said she wants to see tribes brought to the table in a meaningful way — not just as a token.
She’s not alone. A recent push by other Indigenous communities has led to co-management structures along with critiques of the existing processes by which land managers make decisions and designations like ACECs.
In an article titled “30×30, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern and Tribal Cultural Lands” published in Environmental Law Reporter, authors Michael C. Blumm and Gregory A. Allen argue the BLM should scrap the status quo and “promulgate new regulations that use ACECs to establish co-management governing structures that will protect tribal cultural resources.”
They call the current system of ACEC management “largely ineffective.”
ACECs “are currently an uncoordinated mess, leaving unprotected many acres of lands to which Congress intended BLM to give special management attention,” the paper reads.
Michael Carroll, an advocacy director at The Wilderness Society, agrees. His group is currently working with the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers on a report assessing ACEC designations and tribal involvement. That report is expected in December.
One of the things TWS has identified over the years, Carroll said, “is that the BLM has all these great tools in their toolbox for conservation and for cultural resource protection and for the management of their lands that they don’t use very well and that could use some updating.”
The fault doesn’t necessarily fall on the agency, he said. Rather, there are structural impediments.
“There’s no overarching guidance of what it means to designate an ACEC and how ACECs should be managed so that there’s consistency and that there’s some sort of through-line between all of the different ACECs that are out there in terms of how they’re being managed to protect the resources,” Carroll said. “From the jump, they’re not set up to succeed.”
There are ruptures throughout the system, NATHPO Executive Director Valerie J. Grussing said, including lack of funding for agencies and tribal resources, lack of communication between BLM headquarters and specific field offices, a dearth of guidance and the disruptions caused by staff turnover. “There’s a lot of disconnects going on,” she said.
Grussing and Carroll hope the current administration addresses the structural gaps, they said.
“In particular on the ACEC front,” Carroll said of the BLM, “they need to actually step up their game for engaging with tribal communities for sure.”
Soldier Wolf echoed that, saying she hopes people take these designations seriously, “but also incorporating tribes into the process and making sure the things they want protected are protected.”
Designation and enforcement
In the Red Desert on a mild October day, Soldier Wolf stepped out of her truck and walked toward bleached, wind-scalloped sand dunes. The Boar’s Tusk, a dormant volcanic feature, rose prominently from the sagelands beyond.
The Killpecker Sand Dunes, a large living dune system of fine white sand, is part of the Greater Sand Dunes ACEC, portions of which are also designated as wilderness study areas. Motorized vehicles are not allowed in the designated areas.
And yet a set of OHV tracks trailing into the dunes offered evidence that people ignore the rules, Soldier Wolf said, and because it’s so vast and empty, transgressions like this could easily go undetected.
Soldier Wolf grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The youngest of 10 children, she would often accompany her father, the Northern Arapaho elder Mark Soldier Wolf, to the Red Desert because researchers and scientists often asked him to show them around the inhospitable landscape, she said.
She went on to work in the tribal historic preservation office before moving into her position at the conservation nonprofit. In the summers of 2021 and 2022, that work entailed leading tribal and state officials on about two dozen tours of the Red Desert.
The tours made clear two things, she said: Red Desert cultural sites are vulnerable and too valuable to not protect. That led to her work toward ACEC designation and fortification, some of which she’s doing in collaboration with other nonprofits.
At the White Mountain petroglyphs, a lonely sandstone monolith etched around the base with pregnant creatures, animal tracks and the squiggles of landforms, Soldier Wolf pointed out where modern chalk or carving has damaged the panels. The public can walk right up to the rock wall, she said; “There’s nothing mitigating any of this.”
Purdy of the BLM condemned defacing of any cultural sites, saying the BLM takes those reports seriously. “People need, obviously, to be respectful of these sites,” he said.
Ultimately, Soldier Wolf said, she wants to perpetuate understanding and appreciation of the Red Desert’s Indigenous resources in new generations of native children — and protections will help keep those resources intact.
“I want to pass it on,” she said.