First, this seems to be the familiar problem with heritage preservation just about anywhere in the world—helping local residents understand the importance of preserving objects—and not removing them. In the case of thisarea, there are artifacts, pots, baskets, textiles, axe-heads and other objects often are well-preserved by the dry air, and in some cases aren't even buried. I think these arrests are a welcome development, but they aren't going to be the best or only solution. These extensive criminal investigations help raise the profile of the problem, but as I've argued elsewhere; they aren't a solution. These elaborate criminal investigations are expensive, and require a great deal of resources. I'm not sure either that we can guarantee that these will continue. I'd like to see these arrests followed by some outreach explaining to the residents of these and other rural communities why these objects need to remain where they are, so they can be preserved for future generations.
Most of those indicted were residents of Blanding, Utah, which according to wikipedia has the benefit of nearby monuments such as the Natural Bridges National Monument, Monument Valley and the Four Corners area, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Lake Powell), Cedar Mesa archaeological and wilderness area, the San Juan River including Goosenecks State Park, and the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. It is located approximately 1 hour south of the popular recreation hub, Moab, and Arches National Park.
As the piece in the LAT notes:
Southwest residents have been scooping up artifacts for generations. Since the early 20th century, settlers were even encouraged to dig up arrowheads, pottery and other remains. In the 1920s the University of Utah paid Blanding residents $2 per ancient pot.
Federal authorities estimate that 90% of the 20,000 archaeological sites in San Juan County, where Blanding is located, have been plundered.
According to a search warrant affidavit, the FBI and Bureau of Land Management in October 2006 developed "a major dealer of archaeological artifacts" as a source who would help them unravel the informal network of pot hunters profiting off the land's history. Authorities wired the dealer to record the transactions.
Second, the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazer was at the news conference, in what seems to be a high-profile attempt to highlight how seriously federal authorities are taking the looting of Native American sites. These charges arose as part of a two-year investigation. This indicates a dramatic departure from one of the final acts of the Bush administration, which was to pardon a Utah man for stealing objects from Native American territory.