Arizona State Parks employees and volunteers have recorded multiple cases of archaeological destruction at Catalina State Park this year, according to photographs and internal emails obtained by Phoenix New Times.
It's unclear who's behind the latest example of damage to native sites at State Parks.
Although a park manager denied any responsibility for the damage in the park north of Tucson, records show, Parks employees say it's bad enough that it happened under the manager's watch after he had previously been warned about cultural violations.
The reports of destruction occurred despite revelations last year that Parks routinely ignored cultural regulations, causing damage to countless native antiquities sites.
First reported by New Times in October, the pattern of apparent antiquities violations led Governor Doug Ducey to fire former agency director Sue Black last year. Attorney General Mark Brnovich also launched a criminal investigation, still ongoing, into the matter.
Ducey appointed Robert Broscheid, former Colorado Parks and Wildlife director, to replace Black on January 11. Broscheid started work on February 2. In response to a question about how he plans to move on from Black's administration, Broscheid recently told Arizona Capitol Times, "Stability is priority."
Parks has recently taken steps in direct response to the turmoil that shook the agency last year, including establishing cultural sensitivity training for all staff and tribal relations training for employees of the Phoenix central office.
But some Parks staffers and volunteers say the message isn't getting across to everyone, pointing to reports of unauthorized development in archaeological sites in Catalina State Park as recently as March.
When contacted by New Times on March 28 regarding developments in Catalina State Park, Parks spokesperson Michelle Thompson responded that the inquiry was the "first our executive leadership has heard about this issue." She added that the agency launched an internal investigation of the matter.
New Times subsequently obtained an email showing that Parks Deputy Director Darla Cook, a member of the executive leadership team, was made aware of potential cultural violations at Catalina State Park on March 26.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Thompson acknowledged that Cook received the aforementioned email before New Times' inquiry, but that the Parks deputy director elected to do some "fact-finding" before bringing the matter to Broscheid.
Catalina State Park — administered by Arizona, but sitting on U.S. Forest Service land — covers more than 5,000 acres in a mountainous area north of Tucson. Within the park boundaries, archaeologists have discovered pueblo ruins — including ceremonial ball pits — dating back hundreds of years. Romero Ruin, the most famous site of the park, was once home to between 125 and 200 people in ancient times, and was later settled by Francisco Romero, a prominent resident of the Tucson area in the 1880s.
Federal policies dictate that an archaeological review should precede any development on or near antiquities sites to mitigate potential cultural damage. But someone has dug trenches, built rock structures, and widened trails in Catalina State Park, including within the Romero Ruin site, without regard for archaeological features there, according to memos and photographs reviewed by New Times.
On January 31, a Parks volunteer recorded multiple instances of trail work within the Romero Ruin site, according to a memo obtained by New Times. The volunteer took photos of recently constructed brush structures that appear to employ reclaimed rocks at the base, raising concerns that the rocks could have been taken from collapsed pueblo structures. The volunteer also raised concerns of ditches being dug and dams being built without approval from the relevant authorities.
The volunteer's concerns led to a February 8 meeting with Catalina Park staff and U.S. Forest Service employees, according to an internal memo. Catalina park manager Steve Haas told the volunteer that Parks was not responsible for any of the aforementioned work, suggesting the maintenance might have been done by outside groups. Assistant park manager Jack McCabe allegedly said that in 30 years working at Catalina State Park no one had ever instructed him not to do trail work because of cultural resources, according to the memo.
The volunteer also reported the damage to Will Russell, the former Parks archaeologist who blew the whistle on former director Black's pattern of disregard for cultural regulations. Although Russell no longer has any authority at Parks, he has become something of a sounding board for Parks staffers and volunteers with archaeology-related concerns.
Russell said he also received a call from a Parks employee on February 11 reporting that a group of Parks volunteers "broke an artifact" while building a check dam in an archaeological site in Catalina State Park. The employee said they probably should not have told anyone about the alleged incident and hung up the phone.
Russell managed to get back in contact with the employee on March 11 and asked the employee to specify what kind of artifact was broken. Was it just a pottery sherd? The employee said they did not know but felt like it was more significant than a sherd because a "volunteer felt really guilty about it."
Russell also received a text message from a separate Parks employee on March 12 asking whether he had ever authorized trail work at another archaeological site in Catalina State Park. Russell responded, "Shit. No. Absolutely not," according to a copy of the text message reviewed by New Times.
Russell said he reported all three cases to the U.S. Forest Service, which did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The reports of anonymous cultural destruction at Catalina State Park do not appear to match the scale of damage overseen by director Black during a period when the agency used heavy machinery to flatten archaeological sites in a push to build trails and cabins.
But Russell said reports of ongoing archaeological damage in Catalina State Park are particularly troubling because he had already done assessments of archaeological damage in the park when he was still working for Arizona State Parks last year. He instructed Haas to halt an unauthorized project in June, records show.
In one instance last year — a metate (a stone instrument used by ancient Native Americans to grind corn) — had been removed from an archaeological site and used to fill an eroded section of a Parks trail.
Russell said he does not buy the excuse from Catalina managers that they don't know who is working on the projects described during the February 8 meeting.
"These are full-time employees, so they’re supposed to know what is going on. How oblivious can they be?" Russell said. "It’s like a bank guard saying, ‘I didn’t tell those guys to rob this place.’"
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.