© mike connealy
Some Thoughts on Preserving Ancient Art
It is customary on rock art web sites to avoid providing specific information on locations of the petroglyphs and pictographs. I follow that convention here. However, I think it is also important to point out that anyone who studies the existing literature and a few maps can easily figure out the locations. Additionally, virtually all rock art sites are well-known to local people in the area, and it is from that source that most of the threat to to the art has originated historically. Of course, accessibility to information through the web has probably increased visits to the sites too. However, I think the danger to the art remains far greater, not from web browsers, but from those who do their wandering in pickups, armed with rifles, markers and spray cans.

There is a huge number of rock art sites on public lands in the Southwest; protecting them all is certainly impractical, but there are some steps that could be taken to identify, protect and preserve key sites. The first thing is to discard the idea that keeping rock art a secret is a feasible strategy. A more productive approach might be to institute an educational program -- starting at the elementary school level -- in the vicinity of major sites which would help to create a sense of the value of the irreplaceable heritage among the local populace. Involving local people in the conduct of such a program might also counter some of the antipathy which federal regulatory programs often seem to provoke. Along this line, it is clearly not a good idea to post warning signs about defacing rock art in such a position as to put the art in the line of fire. Where I live, it is very rare to find such signs that are not bullet-riddled.

Perhaps a more important immediate step would be to identify the most urgent threats to rock art sites and to take some immediate action to protect them. Unfortunately, federal government policies are often -- and increasingly -- moving us in the opposite direction. For instance, the Bureau of Land Management presently permits Broad Canyon in southern New Mexico to be used as a highway for recreational vehicles. Besides the obvious damage to the canyon's ecology, the policy also puts at risk some of the finest examples of Jornada-Mogollon and Apache rock art in the region. Even more alarming is the imminent opening of the Otero Mesa to oil and gas exploitation. That rare grassland area near the Texas border is already burdened by a heavy dose of smog from El Paso/Juarez. Now, the plan is to permit the construction of a network of roads and pipelines to service drilling and pumping sites. That will surely devastate the fragile high desert environment beyond repair, as well as exposing the vast repository of rock art around Alamo Mountain to degradation and destruction.

Of course, not all threats to ancient art are wholly man-made. Time and the elements take their toll. Rain, flowing water, and wind blown dust erode and obscure rock art designs. Bacterial action over the centuries fills in the shallow groves of petroglyphs with an iron oxide patina. Those are natural processes operating on a millenial scale in which we probably cannot and should not intervene. There are, however, opportunities to decelerate the degradation of some sites at which crucial information is quickly disappearing. In some cases, damage could be mitigated by limiting cattle grazing with its resultant foliage denudation and erosion due to increased seasonal water flows. There may also be some physical interventions which would give some protection to especially vulnerable sites. Some of the red painted Jornada-Mogollon designs have held up surprisingly well for centuries, but many others in exposed locations are now barely discernable. Apache rock art seems particularly vulnerable because of the combination of techniques used by the artists and the type of rock surfaces they chose for their designs; some of these might be stabilized. At the very least, they should be quickly mapped and photographically recorded for the appreciation of future generations.

Since I wrote the above there have been some changes that have cut down some of the traffic to local rock art sites. A landowner has put up no-trespass signs to block access to the lower part of Broad Canyon, so the four-wheelers are apparently no longer able to enter that way. The road into the upper part of Broad Canyon has not been graded in a couple years and the steep and eroded grade down into the upper canyon is becoming very difficult. Access to Lucero Arroyo has been limited by NMSU which has put up no-trespassing signs on the entry road.

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