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In my opinion...Promoting Visitation to Rock Art Sites on Public Lands

By Leigh Marymor Former Conservation Committee Chair July 13, 1998

In the Preface to A Guide to Rock Art Sites. Southern California and Nevada, archaeologist and author, David Whitley, makes the case for publishing detailed directions to 38 rock art sites located on public lands by citing the argument put forward by State Archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management, Russ Kaldenberg, that "the simple presence of responsible and informed visitors, especially at remote sites, will serve as a deterrent to vandals who may intentionally or inadvertently harm the art." (pg xiii) Throughout the text, Whitley offers the general audience to whom this guide is directed, an interpretive framework from which to view Native American rock art, provides education regarding threats to rock art sites, and suggests appropriate behavior when visiting them. There is an appeal to his readership that "people concerned with the preservation of rock art sites broadcast their feelings to the agencies charged with caring for the sites." (pg xiii) Finally, Whitley assures us that of the 38 rock art sites that he has chosen in consultation with "numerous archaeologists and land managers" (pg xiii), all are on public land, are open to the general public, and "generally have ongoing management and preservation programs in place." (pg 47)

Close on the heels of Whitley's publication comes the Bureau of Land Management's new web page, prepared by Russ Kaldenberg, which includes detailed directions to 24 rock art sites on Bureau of Land Management lands in California. Clearly, the publication of directions to so many rock art sites represents a new trend, one which upsets the prior status quo which frowned heavily on publishing maps and directions to any but a few well-managed public sites (Chaw'se, a.k.a. Grinding Rocks, State Park in Amador County, California comes to mind). In Coso Rock Art. A New Perspective William Clewlow, Jr. reflects back on the 1973 publication of Prehistoric Rock Art of California in which " . . . In keeping with the suggestions of Steward as well as Heizer and Baumhoff, the descriptive [locational] information presented by Grant, von Werlhof, and many others was not repeated." (pg 14). Clewlow acknowledges his harsh critics when he relates, . . . "Incredibly as it may seem, Heizer and Clewlow were publicly rebuked and expelled from the Society of California Archaeology in 1974 on the grounds that their rock art monograph encouraged destruction of petroglyphs by describing site locations, thus giving potential vandals instant lists of places to plunder. In retrospect, the literature debates are standard expressions of typical academic tribal warfare, while the latter incident may be seen as a particularly painful birthing companion to the new cultural resource management subdiscipline." (pg 21).

Clearly, the issue of publication of rock art site maps and directions is, and has been, a touchy issue - one that has the potential for giving rise to heated debate. There is a natural polarization of interests between those people who would like to have all rock art sites restricted from public access in order to protect them from intentional and unintentional harm, and those who favor open visitations by all as a right of citizenship and public ownership of public lands. Between these two extremes lie numerous opinions. Carl Bjork, a rock art conservation activist from Central California, insists that directions to unprotected sites on public lands must be closely held. "Do not advertise or give the exact directions to rock art sites. If the general public is interested in rock art let them find it on their own. We did, didn't we . . . If we are to open sites, then build trails and the rest of the stuff that goes with good protection planning . . . create a park with staff. Or, keep the site location secret, but create a protection plan, use monitors, educate the public, and involve the local community."

Bill Hyder, ARARA Past-President, voiced a much more tolerant view concerning the publication of directions to sites which are on public lands and locally known. In reviewing David Whitley's Guide to Rock Art Sites Hyder supported the publication of the directions to the 38 sites and cited the basis for his support. "All the sites included in this guide are included on ARARA's own list of "public" sites, although that list has not been published for general public consumption. Each site included in this guide is located on public property and in each case the responsible land manager approved its inclusion or selected it over others for inclusion. While it is true that not all of the sites are well known to the general public or well protected by the responsible public agency, all are well known to locals and some have already experienced destructive vandalism. . . . Some of the sites Whitley has been criticized for including, I have visited in the past based on information contained in archaeological publications, including ARARA publications."

What, after all, are the accepted criteria for promoting visitations to rock art sites on public lands to the general public? In my opinion, a few basic tenants of cultural resource management planning should guide us in making the decision regarding whether or not to promote a rock art site for public visitations, even if the site is already well known locally. First, prior to opening or promoting a site for public visitations, land managers should document the site in detail, providing a baseline document of existing conditions which can be compared to changing site conditions over time. Second, a cultural resource management plan should be developed for the site which should include management goals, methodology and evaluation protocols. B.K. Schwartz, Jr. has stated emphatically that "Rock art should not be publically noted . . . until a permanent curatorial commitment is made by the institution responsible." (pg 10) The planning process should encourage community involvement of professionals and those with avocational interests. The most likely Native American descendants of those who left the cultural resources should likewise be included in the planning process. Finally, interpretive texts which are developed for these sites should be sensitive to the archaeological record, and to Native American world views, which are often at odds with each other. Interpretive texts, when presenting explanations related to the meaning of the images, should always be provisional in nature. As we in the rock art community witness a changing trend toward developing rock art sites "through tourism and other means" (Ibid., Schwartz, Jr. pg 10), it becomes imperative that we embrace some consensual criteria on what constitutes responsible management of this irreplaceable resource and advocate for their adoption by land managers.

The rock art community must call on archaeologists and land managers to hold to a rigorous standard in their decisions to promote rock art sites to the public. We should lend our support for public visitations to rock art sites on public lands which adhere to these standards, for example those which are included in the BLM's site steward partnership program which is in place at Painted Rock in the Carrizzo Plain (San Luis Obispo County, California). However, we should withhold our support for the publication of directions to rock art sites on public lands until one can show that, prior to publishing directions to each individual rock art site that the responsible land manager has: documented the site, developed a sound cultural resource management plan for the site in consultation with a wide representation of all interested members of the community including the most likely Native American descendants, and that interpretations of the rock art offered to the public reflect the tentative nature of our knowledge.

Where archaeologists and land managers fall short of these standards, as David Whitley entreats us, "... people concerned with the preservation of rock art sites [should] broadcast their feelings to the agencies charged with caring for the sites."

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