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Southwest struggles to preserve petroglyph sites

LAS VEGAS - Bob Forsyth's jeep bounces along a winding 4 x 4 road on the far west side of Las Vegas. He steers through an opening in a chain link fence. A section ripped away years ago, Forsyth says, by an off-roader angry with a land management decision to cut off access to the public.

The road zigzags through the rough desert, at points straddling a flood control channel soon to be dotted by homes. It then dips into a valley and a slow 20 minutes later Forsyth and I arrive at an area locals call Little Red Rock. A remote spot of clumped red sandstone boulders still removed from the crush of Vegas development.

After a short walk the reason for erecting the now-broken fence is obvious. Forsyth stops and points to a rock alcove covered in spray paint graffiti.

"You can't see it now but there were petroglyphs in this whole area under that mess," Forsyth said with disappointment in his voice. "This was a sacred place to the people who lived here thousands of years ago and they destroyed it."

Just as attractive as it was to early American Indians, who lived, cooked and hunted in the area, it's a place now popular, Forsyth said, with partying teens who many suspect are responsible for the damage.

It was last June when Forsyth and I made a trip to the site. On that day, among the creosote bush, yucca and cacti, broken brown glass littered the ground and a box of trash was tucked away near a cactus. The rubbish was fresh. The labels on the Budweiser bottles were still bright red despite baking 100-plus temperatures for more than a week and burnt wood in a fire ring left a black charcoal on the fingers when touched.

Whether or not new paint was added to the alcove at this latest party is anyone's guess. The damage to the rock art panel dates back at least a decade and is so extensive it's hard to tell what is fresh. Names, dates and initials are scrawled in several colors across the rock.

Forsyth, a retired private investigator, has been documenting petroglyph sites throughout Clark County for several years now. His photo-jammed Web site, www.forsythlv.com, contains hundreds of images but his actions have come under fire recently by some who say his listings, which contain driving directions and global positioning system coordinates, provide a virtual road map for vandals.

But Forsyth defends himself saying only a handful of the rock art sites listed have precise locations and those that do are ones showcased on maps or advertised in park pamphlets or books.

"I don't want to see vandalism either," Forsyth said. "But these aren't for a privileged few. I think people have a right to see them and for most these photos will be the only way they can."

With more than 1,200 recorded sites in Nevada, Alanah Woody, executive director of Nevada Rock Art Foundation, fears the release of any information, especially GPS data, often referred to as "digital vandalism."

"It throws fuel on the fire," said Woody. "Archeologists, traditionally, have tried to keep sites a secret and in some cases that's the best way to prevent damage. It's a slippery slope. We want people to see them, but we want them to respect the sites."

But many are not. Petroglyph vandalism is a growing problem throughout the southwest. In August, three petroglyphs were chipped away and stolen from a panel in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, north of Reno. A month later they were recovered at a house in Reno where the thieves had used them to accent their home landscaping. Both men were indicted for felony theft under the Archeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA).

But perhaps nowhere is the problem worse than in Utah.

"We probably lead the nation in where damage occurs," admits Rudy Mauldin, a veteran law enforcement agent who specializes in archeological crime for the Bureau of Land Management in Salt Lake City.

Last year, BLM offices in Moab, Monticello and Cedar City all reported new damage. And federal officials even offered a monetary reward in an effort to locate those responsible for vandalizing one of Utah's oldest petroglyph panels in San Juan County last April.

And when it comes to prosecuting archeological crimes, Utah leads the nation, Mauldin said. Between 1992 and 2000, federal prosecutors convicted 38 people in Utah under ARPA. A pretty good record, Mauldin pointed out seeing there are only 21 law enforcement officers patrolling Utah's 22.9 million acres of BLM land. But there are many more they don't catch.

"We've had some landmark achievements in archeological crime," Mauldin said of Utah's efforts to crackdown on artifact theft and blatant vandalism. "It's not something we take lightly."

In one case, back in 1994, BLM investigators matched the DNA on a discarded cigarette found at an illegal dig site to a suspect in a pot hunting case. The defendant was indicted based on the evidence, later convicted and served five years in prison.

Utah was the also the first in the nation to issue prison time in a rock art vandalism case, when in 1996 a judge sentenced a man to 10 months in jail for damaging a petroglyph panel in Kane County. But why do they do it?

"There is just something mystical about it for some people," Mauldin said discussing the possible attraction that leads to someone damaging a site. "After they stare at it for a while they gravitate to it and want to leave their own image - their own mark there - so they do."

Encroaching development is also taking its toll on resources bringing homes and businesses closer to some archeological sites. Not only in Las Vegas where BLM officials have held public meetings to discuss the protection of sites near Sloan Canyon, but also at designated national and state parks.

Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, N.M. is a 17-mile basalt escarpment that contains more than 20,000 images. It was on the far outskirts of the city when it was established in 1990, but now some homeowners have petroglyphs right in their backyards, according to Diane Souder, the park's chief of interpretation.

And ever since its creation the monument has been in the middle of a land squabble. A proposed development for thousands of homes requires the city to extend a six-lane highway right through the northern section of the park.

To make way for the Paseo del Norte extension the U.S. Senate voted in 1997 to return 8.5 acres of federal land to the city. Then last May, Albuquerque officials voted to proceed with the highway and a lawsuit was immediately filed by the SAGE Council, a local citizens group, challenging the decision.

"This area is considered a sacred place of prayer to the Pueblos," said Laurie Weahkee, director of SAGE. "There has been incredible disrespect to the tribe's religious beliefs. It will ruin the integrity of the park."

In October, the group won a major victory when residents failed to pass a bond measure that would have paid for the multi-million dollar project. Now to get the project started city officials may have to seek federal grant money. Doing so would also lead to a federal review and detailed environmental impact studies.

Meanwhile, residents in Cedar City, Utah weren't so lucky. They lost their battle to safeguard its history when the city allowed development in sensitive areas, according to Nathan Cowlishaw. Now rock art panels can be seen from the kitchen windows of newly-constructed homes and alongside roadways where one site across the street from a new Wal-Mart has already been wiped away by vandals.

"It breaks your heart to walk up to these petroglyph sites and see someone had an urge to destroy it," said Cowlishaw. "Piece by piece by piece it's going into oblivion. Sometimes it seems hopeless."