RENO, Nev. -- U.S. Forest Service officials never believed John Ligon's claim that he dug up three boulders etched with American Indian petroglyphs four years ago to put them in his front yard for safekeeping.
But they did share a concern he voiced that someone would steal the centuries-old rock art on national forest land a few football fields away from a growing housing development. After they recovered the stolen property, federal land managers struggled for years with the question of what to do with the rock etchings of a bighorn sheep, an archer, a lizard and a wheel.
Now, after initially thinking it was best to place them in a state museum, the agency -- in consultation with local tribal leaders -- has decided to return them to the mountainside where they were for perhaps as long as 1,000 years before they were disturbed.
"It belongs out there," said Lynda Shoshone, cultural resources director for the Washoe Tribe in Nevada and California. She and others said removing the petroglyphs from the site took them out of their spiritual context.
"I realize it is a tough decision on our part because we don't want it to be damaged any more than it has been," Shoshone said. "But I've come to the conclusion that maybe the more we educate John Q. Public at the sites, the more they will help us preserve stuff like this."
The theft of the petroglyphs on the northwest edge of suburban Reno garnered national attention at the time and still reverberates through the community.
"The significant assault on Native American memories and cultural items is as bad as walking into a Catholic church and taking a cross off the wall," said Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
Archaeologists believe the rock pile where the drawings were located was a hunting blind where 800 to 1,000 years ago tribesmen lay in wait for deer and elk migrating from Peavine Peak toward the Truckee River Valley below.
The site is visible three miles away from the upper floors of the federal courthouse in downtown Reno, where the accused looters stood trial in 2003.
Under an agreement with local tribes, the Forest Service intends to return the petroglyphs to that spot this fall, along with fences around the rocks and interpretive signs.
"It is the right thing to do," said Fred Frampton, a Forest Service archaeologist for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
Frampton and others in his position didn't always feel that way.
As those legally responsible for protecting the artifacts under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, federal land managers have been wary of returning such items to the field. They've been even more squeamish about publicizing the sites on maps and downright fearful of marking them with interpretive signs.
"Putting up a sign at an archaeological site is almost like saying, 'Dig here for buried treasure,' " Frampton said in an interview during the trial.
That's why the agency planned to curate the artifacts -- until tribal leaders raised objections.
"We thought maybe we should look at an alternative plan to stuffing them in the back storage room of a museum. I think it is a rare instance that you can restore a site," Frampton said.
Not that he doesn't still have concerns.
"A sign protects a place from law-abiding people. It doesn't protect the site from the non-law-abiding people," he said. "On the other hand, if there is no sign, how would the public know it is illegal to do something to the site?"
Ligon of Reno and codefendant Carroll Mizell of Van Nuys, Calif., admitted they used a winch to haul the 300-pound boulders into a pickup. But they insisted when they were arrested that all they wanted to do was protect the artifacts. They said they had no idea they were on national forest land, let alone prohibited from removing the petroglyphs.
In the end, their motivation had nothing to do with their guilt or innocence.
After the federal jury in Reno convicted them of theft of government property, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict partly because the Justice Department had failed to prove the men knew or should have known that what they were stealing was of archaeological value.
The two men ended up paying civil fines totaling $21,523, money that is being used to finance the site's restoration.
Ligon could not be reached for comment, but his Reno lawyer said Ligon was pleased the site was being fully restored with new protections.
"We paid a civil penalty for their restoration, and as a consequence, we are in essence paying for their return," Scott Freeman said. "We're also very glad they are going to put interpretive signs up there. That would help prevent future misunderstandings."
It has not been determined to what extent the site will be marked, or where the signs will be placed. Part of the plan calls for cooperation from local stewards who've received training to help monitor such sites.