Forest Service, Native Community Seek to Protect Sacred Site After Some Claim Mayan Connection

Track Rock Gap—a 1,200-year-old archeological and Native American sacred site, located about 75 miles north of Atlanta, Georgia—has long gone undisturbed.

Yet, the site, which is home to a variety of Cherokee and Creek stone petroglyphs and located in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, has lately become the subject of national attention with claims that the area is connected to the Mayan people.

On December 21, 2011—one year prior to the supposed end of days, according to the Mayan calendar—an Examiner article ran that claimed Track Rock Gap has stone carvings identical to that of the Mayan people and that the Creek and Cherokee share some Mayan phrases.

As result of this claim, Track Rock Gap has seen over the past eight months an influx of Mayan enthusiasts, said James Wettstaed, heritage program manager and tribal liaison for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Service.

Wettstaed anticipates many more will make the trek up to Track Rock Gap as December 2012 nears.

“[We] got a lot of interest from the public,” he said. “I’ve been out to the site since the summer of 2009 and there [were] no signs of visitation. A week after the article, user-created trails began to grow from a small footpath to something that was more obvious. Whenever I’ve been out there people are looking for the site.”

Wettstaed added that the area has recently been subject to vandalism.

“We started getting some impacts,” he said. “People were moving things around—rocks within the site.”

As a result of the disturbance, Wettstaed said the Forest Service decided to block a main user-created, unauthorized trail that lead up to the foliage-fortified archeological site by knocking down “dead and dying” trees.

“There was one primary unauthorized trail and that we blocked,” Wettstaed said, adding that there are still many more unauthorized trails leading to the site.

In July, another Examiner article ran that claimed the Forest Service knocked down more than one hundred trees and blocked the primary trail without the permission of the Creek and Cherokee people.

Wettstaed was quick to debunk the accusation.

“We went to [the nations],” he said. “I’ve kept them appraised with everything that’s going on. … They’ve all endorsed what we’ve done.”

Judy Toppins, public affairs staff officer with the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Service, said that in March not one hundred, but less than two-dozen trees were chopped down to obscure the user-created trail.

“The mitigation activity that we did for the unauthorized trail … included the taking of about 20 or so dead or damaged trees, non-merchantable timber,” she said. “There also was quite a bit of brush cut and pulled into that trail area. … Nothing was cut within the archeological zone.”

Lisa LaRue-Baker, acting tribal historic preservation officer with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, affirmed that Wettstaed has been in consistent contact with the nation in reference to the site and trail.

“We consult with the Forest Service in our historic area of interest on a regular basis,” she said. “[They] made us aware of [the chopping down of the trees] and we didn’t object to it.”

LaRue-Baker said a film crew had submitted an application with the Forest Service to film a documentary within Track Rock Gap. LaRue-Baker told Wettstaed that the nation was adamantly opposed to the idea to filming at their sacred site.

"Our initial response was that we didn’t wish to see the permit be approved because it’s an archeological site that we would like to remain pristine,” she said. “It’s a sacred site and we don’t want sacred sites commercialized and exploited.”

She added that the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians do not want the site “violated and forever altered for curious and recreational purposes.”

LaRue-Baker, who said she’s “baffled” by the “fabricated Mayan-Cherokee connection,” said her nation, in partnership with the Forest Service, are working on a plan to further protect the site.

“It’s the last stronghold we have on our homeland,” she said. “It’s very near and dear to us.”

Wettstaed promulgated that there is no empirical or scientific data that links the Mayan people to Track Rock Gap.

Wettstaed added the Forest Service will continue to monitor the site and that he hopes that after December the hype for Track Rock Gap will all “go away.”