Archaeology
1:43 pm
Wed August 28, 2013

Treasure Hunters Destroy Idaho’s Historic Oregon Trail Ruts

The Oregon Trail passed through Idaho for hundreds of miles 150 years ago. In some places you can still see the ruts from the wagons that brought people west.

documenting the damage
Credit Zeke Robinson

Last week archaeologist Suzann Henrikson drove a local historian and a local Boy Scout leader out to see a well-preserved part of the trail near the Snake River. Henrikson works for the Bureau of Land Management in Burley. She and her guests found something unexpected.

“Hundreds and hundreds of holes dug directly in the corridor of the trail, the ruts themselves. It’s just ghastly,” Henrikson says.

People with metal detectors likely visited the site in hopes of finding valuable artifacts. Henrikson has been expecting something like this to happen for a while, in part because of two TV shows.

One on the cable channel Spike TV originally called "American Digger", now "Savage Family Diggers", features a former pro wrestler and a lot of explosions. It’s about people who go out with metal detectors, find and dig up historic artifacts and sell them. The National Geographic Channel has a less intense version called "Diggers".

Henrikson says ever since the shows hit airwaves archeologists on federal sites have been dreading what has now happened in Idaho. Archaeologists had even spoken to the shows’ producers.

“We’ve told them that we’re very concerned about the messages being sent in these programs, you know that there’s profit to be had,” says Henrikson.

Spike TV did not respond to a request for an interview. A spokesperson for the National Geographic Chanel sent us this statement:

"National Geographic Channel and the Diggers team work closely with a team of archaeologists and local historians at every sight to preserve the record of any artifacts we might find and ensure the sites are left undisturbed. Any found artifacts remain with the community or the land owners so they can be enjoyed for years to come and often have little to no monetary value. We believe this show encourages responsible metal detecting and believe it should only be practiced in an ethical manner that avoids harm to our country’s historical legacy and environment. Events like this are as disappointing to us as they are others in the business of discovery and preservation of history.  We take great pride in using our show as a tool to also educate hobbyists in the field by outlining best practices for responsible metal detecting on our website."

Credit Zeke Robinson

Henrikson says she wouldn’t be surprised if vandalism like this becomes more common.

Meanwhile, a BLM special agent is looking for the people who took their shovels to the Oregon Trail. Henrikson says those people might have found some coins, jewelry, or silverware but probably nothing worth more than about $50. And for that she says, they committed a felony.

First time violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act can carry fines of $20,000 and more than a year in prison. Those go up to $100,000 and five years for subsequent offenses.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio