The Arizona Parks Department recently oversaw the flattening of a protected archaeological site at Lake Havasu State Park, according to a compliance officer who resigned from the agency this month.
The land-clearing operation likely damaged an untold number of Native antiquities and violated state regulations, the former Parks employee said.
Neglecting cultural protections would be the latest flap for a state agency that has fended off multiple scandals under director Sue Black, an appointee of Governor Doug Ducey.
Now the site has been leveled by heavy machinery, tire treads cutting across one section, according to photographs taken of the site on July 19.
Dr. Will Russell, an archaeologist who worked as a Parks compliance watchdog from June 2017 until this month, said the photographs show evidence of construction activity that almost certainly damaged Native artifacts. Other artifacts, undisturbed for centuries, were likely removed from their context, making it more difficult for archaeologists to make sense of them.
"The odds of them not hitting one [are] next to zero,” said Russell, who obtained a doctorate degree from Arizona State University in 2016.
Phoenix New Times received emails and memoranda related to construction activity at the Lake Havasu Park archaeological site. While most of the documents were written by Russell, they were sent to New Times through a different former employee. New Times subsequently reached out to Russell for comment.
The Arizona Antiquities Act prohibits anyone from altering or developing such sites on public land without obtaining project-specific permits granted by the director of the Arizona State Museum.
Best practices call for Parks employees to mitigate damage to archaeological sites and consult with tribes prior to any development. Records show tribes that have expressed affiliation with the Lake Havasu area include the Zuni, Navajo, Moapa, Salt River Pima-Maricopa, Yavapai-Apache, Yavapai-Prescott, Hualapai, Hopi, Fort Mojave, Fort McDowell Yavapai, and Chemehuevi.
In many cases, the Arizona State Museum reviews proposals to mitigate damage of eligible archaeological sites. Arizona State Museum Director Patrick Lyons told New Times that his office did not receive any notice from Parks about development or damage at the Lake Havasu site.
"I am concerned,” Lyons said. "If there is damage out there, and if nobody had contacted Arizona State Museum, that would not be good.”
Any violation of the Arizona Antiquities Act constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by up to four months in jail.
A 2006 survey conducted at the site on behalf of the Arizona Department of Transportation recommended that developers avoid it altogether, Lyons said.
Since coming into office in 2015, Black has come under scrutiny by state officials for allegations of misconduct, including mistreating employees, improper firings, ordering forced volunteer work, and giving special treatment to close friends.
Ducey’s administration has investigated or ordered inquiries into Black’s Parks department at least four times, mostly regarding her treatment of employees. Reporting by Arizona Republic and Phoenix New Times have helped fuel the probes.
Ducey, who is running for re-election, has supported Black through her rocky career.
The most in-depth investigation of Parks, conducted by the Arizona Department of Administration (ADOA), took place over a three-month period this summer and included interviews with dozens of staff members. ADOA recently drafted a report based on that investigation, which is currently under legal review, according to spokesperson Megan Rose. Russell said he raised concerns to state investigators at the time about the agency's compliance with cultural regulations.
By deadline today, Arizona Parks spokesperson Michelle Thompson had partially responded to a list of 10 questions sent via email on October 19. She confirmed some of the details in this story, but has not yet addressed allegations that Parks flattened the Lake Havasu antiquities site without following cultural protection rules.
In response to a general question about the Parks department's compliance with cultural regulations, Thompson sent a report prepared by the State Historic Preservation Office containing a list of 74 times Parks consulted with the office on projects in the state's fiscal year of 2018, which ended June 30.
"As always, we thank you for your dedicated efforts to comply with the State Historic Preservation Act and look forward to our continued partnership with [Parks]," wrote preservation officer Kathryn Leonard to Black, her boss.
Leonard sent the memo on October 17, the day after New Times first asked questions about Russell's resignation.
Shown a copy of the memo, Russell said most of the reviews on the list were initiated by him, except for projects funded by federal grants. For federally funded projects, archaeological and historic reviews go through the relevant federal agency.
Russell first assessed the site remotely on August 4, 2017, when Parks considered installing cabins on two different sections of Windsor Beach at Lake Havasu Park.
One of the sections would intersect with protected archaeological sites, Russell wrote in a memo to Dawn Collins, Parks Chief of Resources and Public Programs. Russell estimated that developing the site would involve collecting artifacts to curate in perpetuity, which would cost about $3,000 per cubic foot. Test excavations would require a $6,000 permit.
Black, former deputy director Walter Varney, and project manager Richard Schwartz contacted Russell for clarification about the site, according to a memo Russell wrote documenting the damage at the site.
Russell sent the memo via email on July 25 to former deputy director Bret Parke, who — he said — asked him to prepare white papers documenting the Lake Havasu damage and other alleged cultural violations under Black's directorship.
The department ultimately decided to build cabins on the section of beach that did not intersect with the sites.
Another warning about the site's archaeological significance from Russell came in June, according to his memo. As part of a project involving the installation of new restrooms at Lake Havasu Park, project manager James Hannasch asked Russell whether a spot within the archaeological site would be appropriate for stockpiling soil. Russell advised against using the site for any purpose and the soil was deposited in another location.
Russell noticed that construction activity had taken place at the site during a visit on July 19.
"It took my breath away," he said. Small mounds had been completely flattened. Trees had disappeared.
Russell took photos and said he raised concerns about potential damage to the archaeological site with Parks development staff. At first, Russell said, staff told him that the site always been that way. In response, Russell said he showed the staff satellite images of the site prior to the construction activity. Development staff told Russell that a former Lake Havasu park manager oversaw that activity.
Kelly Moffit, a Parks former deputy director who worked at the department for 14 years, said it would be "very unlikely" for a park manager to order any construction activity without first getting approval from senior officials.
"If someone is a manager at a park, they’ve already undergone a great deal of training and they know the process. Even digging a ditch requires clearance through the State Historic Preservation Office," Moffit said.
In his July 25 memo detailing his involvement with the Lake Havasu site, Russell recommended a damage assessment coinciding with tribal consultation.
“It is highly likely that the recent development within the site constitutes an adverse effect,” he wrote.
Another memo seen by New Times shows that Russell was removed from the project on September 5.
According to the memo, Russell was advised that Parks Western Regional Manager John Guthrie possessed documentation showing that Parks complied with “state and federal statutes and industry best practices vis-à-vis the bulldozing” of the Lake Havasu site.
“I was advised that Executive Director Sue Black is confident in Guthrie’s possession of such documentation, that this documentation need not be shared with my office, and that because the agency is within compliance, I no longer need concern myself with this project,” Russell’s memo continues.
Russell resigned from Parks earlier this month to take a job at the Arizona Department of Transportation, confirmed Parks spokesperson Michelle Thompson.
Russell said his conscience wouldn't allow him to work at Parks anymore.
On his last day of work, Russell sent a department-wide email in which he claimed Black and other senior managers ignored the department-stated mission of "managing and conserving" Arizona's cultural resources.
“Protecting Arizona’s cultural resources is something I’m passionate about. It’s more than a profession. It’s my calling. But I can’t do that here,” Russell wrote in his October 15 email, a copy of which was sent to New Times by a different employee.
Russell goes on to quote a colleague who he says once compared compliance officers at Parks to Las Vegas wedding witnesses: “An afterthought. A formality. Our mission’s last line of defense is the most marginalized, despised and hamstrung element among us.”