The Impact of Climate Change on Archaeological Resources in Arizona: Harnessing Citizen Science through the Arizona Site Stewardship Network

Arizona Department of Parks

Principal Investigator:

Dr. Sophia Kelly

Study and Report Completed by:

Daniel Rucker

With assistance from:

Brittany Clark

Grant Number: P14AP00139
December 31st, 2015


This project addresses the emerging challenges that climate change presents for the preservation of archaeological sites. The study used data generated by citizen scientists to assess the correlation between illegal looting, vandalism, and other negative impacts at archaeological sites and climatic fluctuations. Specifically, the study addresses the questions of when and where negative impacts occur at archaeological sites in Arizona, and if those impacts correlate with seasons, temperature, or precipitation.

The Site Steward Program:

The study relied on the extraordinary efforts of approximately 800 citizen volunteers who collected monitoring data from 870 archaeological sites across the state of Arizona in an effort to offset the deleterious impacts of illegal looting, vandalism, and reckless damage to archaeological sites. This enormous effort is due to the success of the Arizona Site Steward Program (ASSP), a program facilitated by the Arizona State Parks Department that trains volunteers to assist in the preservation of archaeological sites for federal and state land-managing agencies. The site stewards work with land managers to monitor archaeological sites. Site stewards agree to visit selected archaeological sites, often located in remote and rugged backcountry settings, to look for evidence of illegal looting, vandalism and negative impacts from recreation (for example damage from ATVs). Site stewards record the results of these visits into a database managed by Arizona State Parks.

The ASSP was established in response to the widespread looting and vandalism of Arizona’s irreplaceable archaeological resources. In 1985, then Governor Bruce Babbitt charged the Governor’s Archaeology Advisory Commission (GAAC) with developing a stewardship-type program in Arizona. The Law Enforcement Subcommittee of the GAAC quickly focused on establishing a volunteer Stewards program, with monitoring sites for vandalism as its primary purpose. Working with the Arizona State historic Preservation Office and a committee of GAAC members, the Commission formally approved the establishment of the Arizona Site Stewards Program on June 5, 1986.

Now in the year 2016, the program celebrates its 30th anniversary. Since the program’s inception, the ASSP has trained more than 2,000 volunteer stewards located throughout the State of Arizona, who monitor, document, and report damages to cultural sites and properties for 38 federal, state, non-profit, and private land managers. In the year 2015 alone, 646 volunteers logged over 26,000 hours visiting sites across 26 regions in Arizona.

In the year 2010, the ASSP implemented an online database for recording a standardized set of attributes observed at looted, vandalized, or otherwise negatively impacted archaeological sites. This new technology created a digital reservoir where the thousands of site visits and vandalism reports could be logged for research and analysis.

Project Goals:

Between the years 2010 and 2014, approximately 800 volunteer site stewards completed 25,642 site visits to 971 archaeological sites. This effort generated an enormous data set. This study used the resulting data to address three primary questions: when and where do negative impacts to archaeological sites occur, and do they correlate with seasonal changes? This project used site condition data collected by the ASSP volunteers and compared the data to fluctuations in temperature, precipitation, and season. Recent research indicates that high seasonal temperatures associated with climate change will reduce recreation on public lands during the summer, and may extend visitation during the winter, or vice versa depending on the area (Loomis and Crespi 1999, Mendelsohn and Markowski 1999, Morris and Walls 2009, Richardson and Loomis 2004, Scott eta. 2005). Shifts in regional climate conditions may impact rates of human-caused site damage. This study sought to understand the current relationship between the climate, human behavior, and site damage, to be used as a reference for future preservation planning.

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Last updated: September 29, 2022