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Bill would protect water-authority lands from artifact looters

Created on Monday, 20 May 2013 11:04
Last Updated on Monday, 20 May 2013 12:01

arrowheadsConservation Arrowheads seized in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation… (Fish and Wildlife)


By Eloísa Ruano González, Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - Treasure hunters have long pilfered arrowheads, pottery and other archaeological artifacts on state lands, risking jail time if caught.

But a loophole in state law meant that looters didn't face consequences for their thievery on Lake County Water Authority lands. That protection may be about to end.

Legislators in their recently concluded session approved a bill that makes it a crime to pilfer historical finds on water-authority lands. Looters on lands of the two water authorities affected — Lake's and the Toho Water Authority in Osceola — could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine under the legislation, which will be sent to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.

"It finally gives us the ability to prosecute people who come to public lands to archaeologically loot," said Mike Perry, Lake County Water Authority executive director. "It gives all our properties the same protection state lands enjoy."

The bill points to a chronic issue across Florida.

A man recently was arrested for plucking arrowheads from the Silver Glen Springs area in the Ocala National Forest, said Joy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. She said a park ranger had spotted the man and reported him to Fish and Wildlife, which conducted an investigation and found numerous arrowheads at his home.

In February, the agency wrapped up a two-year investigation into illegal trade of historical artifacts, mainly American Indian pieces, which resulted in the arrest of the 13 people from Florida and Georgia. Officers had gone undercover and infiltrated the ring, Hill said.

"We do have people who go deep undercover," she said. "We have a variety of ways of finding out about these things."

Officials estimated more than $2 million of artifacts were seized in "Operation Timucua." The group had tried to sell many of those pieces online and at trade shows — some priced as much as $100,000, according to Fish and Wildlife.

Maj. Curtis Brown, who heads the agency's investigations section, said at the time that casual collectors weren't targeted.

"This is not the situation of a family out hiking and finding an arrowhead or other artifact that they want to take home," Brown said. "These subjects intentionally destroyed lands and rivers for their own personal gain. Some even made their entire living on these illegal sales."

Mary Glowacki, who heads the state Division of Historical Resources' Bureau of Archaeological Research, said hunters often go deep into rural, remote areas near bodies of water to look for historical treasures that can date back to 12,000 years. Those often are the best sites for archaeological digging. Ancient tribes set up camp near fresh water, which was great for agriculture and also attracted other food sources, such as birds, she said.

"It's a big problem because we don't have the resources to monitor all the sites," she said.

Though the legislation won't solve the looting problem in the state, Glowacki said it will close a loophole that has existed on water-authority lands and help protect the state's history.

"It's not like a tree that you cut down and can regrow. If you destroy an ancient site, that's it," she said. "They're nonrenewable resources."

Perry said looters have long targeted wetlands and preserves in search of American Indian artifacts in Lake County. He said local governments weren't "comfortable" passing ordinances because they did not own the lands and law-enforcement officials could only trespass individuals after issuing a warning. But they would have to first catch them in the act.

"It's hard to catch them once, much less catch them a second time," Perry said. "We fell through the cracks."

A couple of years ago, the authority put up cameras in Crooked River Preserve in south Lake after looters dug up "huge holes" and tore up vegetation and the shoreline while hunting for historic treasures. Perry said the cameras were ripped down and crushed into pieces within six months. He said it took about $10,000 to repair the site.

The legislation was sponsored by two Lake lawmakers: state Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, and state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. A spokeswoman for Scott said the Governor's Office hasn't received the bill yet.

It would give law-enforcement officials the tools necessary to arrest looters who deface water authorities' lands on felony charges, said Hays, who attempted to pass a similar bill last year. He said the previous bill was "too broad" and sparked concerns from people who use metal detectors to search for finds at beaches and other sites.

"It created a firestorm. We were getting inundated with emails from California to Virginia," Hays said.

The Lake County Water Authority, which was created by the Legislature in 1953, has just less than 7,000 acres of public lands, much of it accessible to the public. Its purposes: to conserve and protect the county's freshwater resources, fish and wildlife; and provide recreational facilities for residents.

The Toho Water Authority has a different mission. Created in 2003, it serves as the water provider in Kissimmee and much of Osceola. The authority has a fenced wetland site in Four Corners that is being restored, but there hasn't been a problem with looters, according to spokeswoman Mary Rose Guidone. Still, she said the Toho authority supports the legislation.

"Bills like this help preserve the resources of our nation's heritage for present and future generations," she said.

Courtesy: Orlando Sentinel

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