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Air Force cultural resource managers preserve, protect heritage at BMGR

JOINT-BASE SAN ANTONIO LACKLAND, Texas -- The Barry M. Goldwater Range, southwest of Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, is considered a national asset for training fighter pilots. It's also home to some of the most diverse and historical archaeological sites in the country. 

Since 1941, the range has served as the nation's second largest tactical aviation range, essential for developing and maintaining the combat readiness of the tactical air forces of the Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Army. 

The history of the mission dates back to World War II, but the range has a history that dates back thousands of years. Archaeologists have discovered prehistoric settlements and gravesites from indigenous people who lived in the region more than 10,000 years ago.

To preserve the region's rich history, cultural resource managers there work closely with tribal leaders, professional archeologists, range management professionals and experts from the other Department of Defense services to identify and protect cultural and historic resources across the more than one million acres of the range. 

"We have 23 tribes who have identified cultural affiliation with this area," said Adrianne Rankin, Air Force archeologist with the 56th Range Management Office, which administers the land and airspace at BMGR. "We work closely with 15 who lived in or crossed through the area.  The BMGR East is the ancestral homeland of the O'odham: the Hia-Ced  O'odham (Sand People), Tohono O'odham (Desert People) and Akimel O'odham (River People)."

"Most of the cultural resources on the Barry M. Goldwater Range are prehistoric archaeological sites situated on the desert landscape, rather than historic buildings," Rankin added.

Although the range was set aside for bombing and gunnery practice, the Air Force takes special precautions to prevent damage to culturally and historically significant sites within its boundaries.

"The cultural preservation program manages a range of ongoing projects," Rankin said.  "Our overall effort is to look at target arrays and try to identify archeological sites to de-conflict archeological sites and mission needs."

To facilitate this, the range management office oversees a monitoring and rapid condition assessment program that includes finding site data, collecting photographs, relocating artifacts, mapping new disturbances and identifying new natural resource conditions for sites located in primary impact zones around targets.

A "geodatabase" that combines geographical information system and site survey reports is used daily to analyze resources and includes a unique archaeological site condition database to monitor disturbances and threats to sites. 

"When we record an archeological site, we perform intensive recording," Rankin said. "We map any kind of disturbance that occurs on a site, whether it's a track or a rodent burrow. That way, we can come back every year and determine if the disturbance is getting worse and determine if we need to take any proactive action." 

Data from repeat visits help the team identify the type and severity of disturbances, and enables them to develop mitigation strategies. The data is also used as the basis for predictive models, so range users know which landforms are most likely to contain significant archaeological resources.

In addition to the geodatabase, the team has implemented an inexpensive, long-term solution to mark archeological sites as buffer zones.  More than 500 bright, orange plastic poles have been installed at 137 sites and tactical ranges, to prevent inadvertent damage to cultural resources. The initiative saves more than $100,000 annually in survey and flagging costs.

While technological advances have helped the team protect these resources, face-to-face collaboration with local tribes and other stakeholders remains crucial to the program's success.

"Collaboration means the Air Force engages tribes earlier and encourages tribal input. It means base leaders and designated cultural liaison officers reach out for more than just business-related issues," said James Wilde, the Air Force cultural resources subject matter expert at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which oversees the Air Force's compliance with environmental and historic preservation laws.

One of the ways the RMO works with the tribes is through collaborative field trips.

"The RMO has field trips with tribes to visit archaeological sites, identify traditional cultural places, sacred sites, and natural resources such as water, rocks, flora and fauna that are important to them," Rankin said. "The Tohono O'odham recently completed a report on O'odham use of the BMGR E: Title: In the Footsteps of my ancestors."

In addition to tribal partnerships, cultural resource managers also partner with schools, universities and local government.

Community partnerships also play an important role at BMGR East, Rankin said.

The BMGR Site Steward Program is a volunteer site-monitoring program that comprises more than 100 citizens who volunteer thousands of hours monitoring sites on 130,000 public-access acres on the range. Activities include repeat photography, recording and mapping of disturbances, updating monitoring notebooks, cataloging site photos and site forms and assisting archaeologists in intensive site recording.

Education also plays an important role, Rankin added. Quarterly briefings by the O'odham Nation are incorporated into F-16 pilot training to enable pilots to understand how military training over tribal lands impacts their people.

Enabling the military training mission is of chief importance to the multi-disciplinary RMO, and the cultural resource program is integral in supporting the busiest primary training range in the DOD, Rankin said.