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A new take on how a Montana's Eye of the Needle collapsed

Monday, August 19, 2002

By Becky Bohrer, The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. -- When an outfitter discovered the toppled remains of the landmark Eye of the Needle sandstone arch along the Missouri River five years ago, it didn't take long for authorities to conclude what caused the damage: Vandals, probably drunken teen-agers.

But now, a prominent Montana outdoor writer and environmentalist is suggesting a less sinister culprit -- Mother Nature.

"There's no doubt in my mind," said Rick Graetz, a writer and former publisher of Montana Magazine. "This was normal weathering."

The theory, which Graetz has espoused in lectures and newspaper columns in recent months, is gaining believers, who say investigators never proved their case. But the Bureau of Land Management is standing by its conclusion that vandals caused the damage.

"There is no evidence to support any other conclusion," said Chuck Otto, an area manager for the bureau.

The Eye of the Needle was an 11-foot tall natural sandstone arch along the Missouri River, photographed by thousands of river rafters and once featured on the cover of the state highway map. Meriwether Lewis described the area in his journals while the Lewis and Clark expedition made its way up the Missouri in 1805.

An outfitter guiding a river trip along the Missouri noticed the damaged arch on May 27, 1997.

The bureau concluded days later, after investigators visited the site high on a cliff above the river, that someone had intentionally knocked the top off the arch, sending parts of it tumbling 200 feet to the cliff bottom. Investigators said six or seven other sandstone features nearby also had been broken off or shoved over.

But Graetz and other skeptics note that investigators never arrested anyone for the damage, despite offering a reward of up to $20,000. They also say there was little, if any, evidence recovered to suggest humans had been at the arch recently.

Graetz does not believe vandals would have gone through the trouble required to reach the Eye. Getting there requires moderate climbing skills to ascend a steep rock wall or a long hike.

Two experts brought in by the federal government to assess the site found no clear evidence of vandalism either.

Martin McAllister, an expert on archaeological damage, said he was struck by the lack of trash at the site.

"Resource criminals are litterers. They are really messy, nasty people," said McAllister, who runs a private consulting firm from Missoula. "I saw none of the things I would associate with a crime scene out there. ...

"That doesn't necessarily mean anything," he added. "You could have people that were 'clean criminals,' who did the act very quickly."

William Melson, a geologist with the Smithsonian Institution who surveyed the site for the Justice Department's investigation, said he also found no clear evidence of vandalism.

"Eventually, it was going to fall; the erosion process continues always," said Melson. "The question is, was it natural weathering or aided by an accident or human action?"

Graetz acknowledges he has little evidence to support his argument, but said it is a logical conclusion that the same forces of nature that created the arch eventually destroyed it.

Even Lewis, nearly 200 years earlier, noted the effect nature was having on the site, writing that the "remarkable white sandstone" was "sufficiently soft to give way readily to the impression of water."

Outfitters and officials at the visitor center in Fort Benton, about 60 miles west of the Eye, still get the occasional question about the feature. The topic no longer dominates conversations in riverside towns, where the fever-pitch of public outcry once led to serious discussion of reconstructing the Eye. But many hold opinions of what happened, some tending away from the official position as time wears on.

"I think we live in a world now where everybody wants to be a victim or have someone to blame. You can't just have a naturally occurring event," said J.R. Strand, executive director of the Lewistown Area Chamber of Commerce.

When Strand first heard vandals were to blame, he said, "I wanted them to catch them and hang them. But as time went on and people talked about how difficult it would be to knock over, I've kind of concluded it's a good shot it was just the laws of nature."

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