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“I guarantee you that if the naval weapons center had not been there, you and I would not be looking at that pristine art,” Mr. Reichert says. “You would be looking at paint spray, you would be looking at instances of people taking high-powered rifles and simply firing at things, just at random. I’ve seen it in other places.”

Mark Rudo, an archaeologist with the National Park Service who periodically inspects the China Lake treasure, raises the same concerns, adding that because of vandalism in areas widely open to the public, his agency is “fine with the status quo.”