I Sincerely Apologize for my Mistake

I was wrong to initiate field research in the Volcanic Tablelands and collect rock samples without explicit clearance from the local BLM authority. I recognize the error in my judgment and apologize to the local tribal groups, including members of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, for the impact of my actions.

While the area’s geology is of significant interest, it is also of cultural and historical importance. I have always tried to conduct field research in a manner that is respectful of the land and its people. In this situation, I failed. I appreciate that I did not realize the damage I was causing at the time and that our efforts to assess the site for signs of petroglyphs and confirm that there were no prominent petroglyphs was not enough. There is no excuse for sampling without permission, and more broadly intruding on sacred land is wrong. I am horrified that I inadvertently collected samples from a sacred area that I too cherish and respect. I sincerely and deeply apologize for the disturbance we caused.

From the moment I was notified and realized the violation and oversight, I have sought to make amends for my actions. I am committed to continuing to educate myself and to bringing awareness to others on how to conduct field work in a more responsible and respectful manner. There should be clear consent of land managers and indigenous people prior to engaging in field work. I hope that I can continue to make amends through my continued efforts to bring awareness to the significance of this matter.

Joe Kirschvink
California Institute of Technology
July 2021


A factual timeline:

  • The sampling locality was several km South of the famous Fish Slough Petroglyph locality which is pictured prominently in news articles. The published images are misleading because there were no obvious petroglyphs where I sampled.
  • No petroglyphs or other human artifacts were pointed out by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officer who issued the original citation in early 2017, on the class field trip. Possible traces of ancient human activity were reported later, after an intense archeological search with trained professionals. I was shocked and horrified when I found out about their presence in 2021. Fortunately, no permanent damage had been done to those traces.
  • During the preparation for the class trip in early 2017, many of the critical web pages for the US Department of the Interior were off-line, as were many government sites related to climatic or environmental issues “404 Error: Page not found” hampered navigation through the permitting process. The only remaining information we found regarding permit requirements for the area were for oil or gas drilling, and filmmaking, and nothing about needing permits to collect samples for scientific research. Calls to the BLM office went unanswered, leading me to rely on outdated information concerning permitting requirements for BLM sites that were free of obvious artifacts. This was, nonetheless, an error on my part, for which I accept full responsibility.
  • The BLM investigation concluded the incident was “inadvertent”, not a deliberate act of malice or desecration
  • I immediately offered to remediate the sampling sites, which is a common procedure used by geologists in the field of paleomagnetism. I was not allowed to do so. In years past my group in particular has developed techniques for restoring the sampling sites to their native state. This has been used extensively, for example in Grand Canyon, where we remediated many paleomagnetic sampling sites collected by the US Geological Survey starting in the 1960’s.
  • To rectify my mistake immediately after being informed of the violation on-site, and during the next few months, I worked diligently with the BLM office in Bishop, and later their office in Barstow, to which I was told the case had been transferred. At no time did any BLM employee inform us about the underlying sensitivity of the entire Volcanic Tableland Area for the Bishop Paiute Tribe. If I had been aware of that, I would have apologized to them immediately, directly, and unequivocally. After July of 2017, however, the BLM went silent. The formal notice of violation was not sent until Feb. 2021, nearly 4 years later
  • I was not aware of the results of the archeological investigation before that time, nor of the spiritual significance of the Volcanic Tablelands to the Paiute Tribe of Bishop. I wish I had realized this significance; my unawareness is a part of and has contributed to the erasure of Indigenous perspectives and truths. This ignorance does not justify nor excuse my actions, for which I deeply and sincerely apologize.