Essential pieces of state's history lost with stolen artifacts

When the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday overturned the conviction of two people accused of stealing artifacts from public lands, it sent a troubling message - the theft was not that big of a deal.

But it is a big deal.

There are many archaeological sites on Nevada's public lands that together tell the story of the state's heritage. As Susan McCabe, an archaeologist at the BLM Carson City Field Office explains to people she talks to, losing an artifact is like losing a piece of a puzzle.

The agencies that manage public lands have long tried to thwart people from taking artifacts home, but as the state's population grows and more people use the public lands, the problem is likely to increase. There are even those who collect them for no other reason than to sell them to collectors.

There was never any doubt the two defendants removed the artifacts - three boulders with thousand-year-old etchings - near Reno, and they were convicted in 2004.

The two said they didn't know they were breaking the law because there were no signs marking the site. We're tempted to put that theory into play the next time we're at the grocery store and we're a little short on cash, but unfortunately we have too much common sense.

At the heart of Tuesday's decision to overturn the conviction was the Justice Department's inability to present enough evidence to show that the rock art had a market value of more than $1,000. It's hard to escape the conclusion that prosecutors bungled the case by not presenting better evidence. That's what one of the judges implied in the ruling that overturned the convictions.

Unfortunately, there's more at stake than just those convictions, and we can only hope that more puzzle pieces aren't lost because of the ruling.


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