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Published: Friday, 2/22/2008

Looting the parks

FOSSILS from the Badlands in South Dakota. Civil War bullets from an Arkansas battlefield. Native American remains in South Florida. All are items being stolen with increasing frequency from our national parks, and it's a crime, one that needs to be fought better than at present.

National Park Service officials say there is an increasing demand via Internet trade and world markets for items such as Civil War relics and native American pottery and garments. The FBI, which helps park investigators track looted items, says some of the most coveted pieces can fetch "in the tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars" from collectors.

In the past decade, a yearly average of 340 "significant" looting incidents have been reported at the 391 national parks, monuments, historic sites, and battlefields around the country. And one park ranger suggests that figure is probably less than 25 percent of the actual number of thefts.

NPS special agent Todd Swain, who wrote a 2007 report on the scope of the looting, believes the problem is far worse than statistics show. Mark Gorman, chief ranger at South Dakota's Badlands National Park, agrees, calling the thefts "a chronic problem that we simply have not even been able to get a grasp on."

Limited manpower to adequately patrol the parks makes it difficult to catch looters in the act. The park service has 1,500 law enforcement rangers and 400 seasonal rangers, which amounts to only one ranger for about every 56,000 acres, and that's not nearly enough to adequately discourage such theft.

First-time offenders face fines up to $20,000 and a year in jail under the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act - but they have to be caught first.

With prices rising for stolen goods sold to collectors in Europe and Asia, we believe the park service must be given the tools it needs to counteract this insidious trend before our cultural heritage literally disappears into private collections.

Authorizing the park service to hire more rangers for especially vulnerable sites would be a good place to start.

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