In Brief

Ancient Utah Rock Art at Risk of Disappearing Completely

The federal government rejected the nomination of ancient Moab-area rock art to the National Register of Historic Places. The team of archaeologists plans to resubmit the sites for listing on the registry, though it will take thousands of hours and significant manpower.

Potash Road in Moab (courtesy Ron Clausen via Wikimedia)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Native American tribes carved and painted thousands of pieces of art on Utah’s red, sprawling canyons and cliff faces. The Shoshone, Goshute, Paiute, Navajo, Ute, and Fremont people covered the region with depictions of war, hunting scenes, animals, maps, and even early calendars, dating from 700 to 8,000 years old. Though hundreds of these sites have been documented over the past 60 years, they have yet to be recognized and protected by the government. In recent years, Utah’s trove of rock art has been vandalized and damaged, and the delicate artifacts are at risk of disappearing completely.

Pam and Quentin Baker, residents of Moab, Utah, have been leading volunteer efforts to document ancient sites since 2001. Their ultimate goal has been to get these pieces of art recognized and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Created by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register of Historic Places is part of the National Park Service’s program to “coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources.”

Volunteers organized by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Bakers have logged thousands of hours in Utah’s harsh desert climate. These volunteers were able to survey 199 sites on around 180,000 acres of land in Moab, located in Utah’s southeastern corner. They submitted these sites to the National Park Service in March of 2019, and  though the initial petition was approved by the Keeper of the National Register (the official responsible for deciding which historic locations are eligible to be included on the National Register) the proposal was ultimately rejected.

According to Josh Loftin, spokesman for the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, the Baker’s team used a “multiple property” process, meaning all the sites were submitted under a single listing. Loftin said the same process was used by the BLM in 2012 and 2014 to put hundreds of sites in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon under group listings. Due to recent leadership changes, the National Park Service wants each site documented separately, a process that could delay the sites’ listing by many years.

“They said they had to do a single nomination for every site,” Loftin told the Salt Lake Tribune. “For [the BLM archaeologists] to go back and do this for each site would be a huge chunk of work they don’t have the time for.”

“We need to say this has national significance, and it’s what makes Moab special.” Pam Baker told the Salt Lake Tribune. “The process is too labor intensive for the BLM to do on their own. Once we were here full time, we recruited others to help, dozens of people.”

Many people and organizations have documented ancient art sites in Utah over the past decades. The problem is that these organizations have different reasons and objectives, and therefore there is no uniform process for surveying, collecting, testing, or excavating these sites. And as technology continues to become more advanced, so too does the quality of information needed to document historical sites. Opponents of this request for uniformity, however, say that inconsistency between the documentation of different surveyors and places is unavoidable and shouldn’t affect the sites being added to the registry.

At the time these sites were submitted to the National Registry, they had passed all necessary steps. The National Park Service says it recognizes the historical significance of Moab’s rock art, but since new leadership has taken over, surveyors are requiring more consistency across the sites’ documentation and a more thorough description of their importance.

The BLM plans to resubmit the sites for listing on the registry even though it will take thousands of hours and significant manpower. Many people think this delay in protection could lead to further vandalization and destruction of the sites.

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