Forest Service works to preserve petroglyphs
The flat granite area located just before the Donner Summit Bridge is one of more than 100 known petroglyph sites in the Northern Sierra region – an area where ancient symbols were carved into the rocks between 4,000 and 1,500 years ago.This particular area, located only a couple hundred feet from Highway 40, is also a popular passway up to the subway corridor located next to the China Wall and to the Pacific Crest Trailhead.According to Carrie Smith, archaeologist for the Truckee Ranger District, mountain bikers, hikers, climbers and backpackers trek and ride right through this area to get to the Pacific Crest Trail.”People are not careful because they are not aware,” said Smith. “It’s not their fault.”On Saturday, a team of archaeologists, volunteers and members of Friends of Sierra Rock Art began phase one of a project to help reduce the impact of increased travel through the Donner Summit petroglyph site and to raise awareness of the petroglyphs and their fragility.The group worked all day to build a small rock blockade to serve as a visual reminder, to detract mountain bikers from riding over the slip rock-like surface and to channel traffic around the petroglyph site instead of right over.They also swept dirt out of the cracks of the petroglyph surface and screened the dirt for artifacts.Only a small piece of Chinese pottery was found, attributed to the Chinese camp that settled near the site in the late 1860s to build the original alignment for the Central Pacific Railroad.This particular petroglyph site has been impacted by more than foot and bike traffic. According to Smith, the area has been subject to blastings from the construction of the Santa Fe Pacific Pipeline in 1956, the AT&T fiberoptic cable put in in the 1980s and the construction of Highway 40.”We realized the debris from the blasting were all over the petroglyph site and we wanted to get it off because it doesn’t belong there,” said Smith. The debris consisted of very angular rock, whereas it should be rounded.When the Forest Service found out the Santa Fe Pacific Pipeline, which transports gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel, spilled in 1997, they wanted to be sure the petroglyph site was not impacted. The area was flooded with products flowing downhill towards the creek, said Smith.”I made them (Santa Fe Pacific Pipeline) hire a consultant archaeologist to make sure the petroglyph site was not impacted by their clean-up activities,” she said.Archaeologist John Betts, who has been working on the study of rock art in the Northern Sierra region for the past 10 years, was hired to record and complete a site record for the area. He currently works as an archaeologist for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Truckee Ranger District. He worked intensely for approximately one month drawing and plotting everything in the petroglyph site to scale. Although there had been many site recordings previously, this was the most ambitious project for recording the site, said Betts.”There’s a lot of them that were damaged, but they are still there. It’s a miraculous thing that all of the construction work has gone in up there and the site was not destroyed,” said Betts.Betts said that the Donner Summit petroglyph site is very similar to the other petroglyph sites in the area, but is unique because it is the most accessible of the sites.”Our rock art has unique qualities,” said Betts of Northern Sierra region rock art. “It is always on horizontal bed rock and at high altitudes. It has a very restricted seasonal accessibility. I haven’t been able to find a group of rock art like us anywhere else in the northern region.”Most petroglyphs in the Northern Sierra region are found on gently sloping bedrock that has been polished by glaciers. Most sites are above 5,000 feet in the rugged terrain near the Sierra Nevada crest. According to Betts, the prehistoric artists made their designs by pecking through the surface colors of the rocks to a lighter interior. The designs in this region are abstract in nature, and it is difficult to recognize their meanings. They are usually made up of circles, wavy lines, zig zags and other complex patterns. One of the more common elements is a design representing a bear track. A bear track is one of the more obvious designs at the Donner Summit site.”Donner is an important site. It’s special just because it is a rock art site,” said Betts. “One extraordinary thing about Donner is it’s readily accessible.”While Betts was recording the site, he observed the pattern of people using the area for Pacific Crest Trail access.Smith said this pattern of traffic was intensified five years ago when that section of Highway 40 was closed for two years for the reconstruction of the Donner Summit Bridge.”That had a direct effect on what brought us to this project,” she said. “People began using the area as a passway. It was a new human behavior that has continued in the past five years. That pattern of people wanting to get up there is still with us today.”The Forest Service project to rechannel the heavy traffic was also designated a Passport in Time project, where volunteers from all over the U.S. can get involved in Forest Service heritage projects.”I try to do a Passport in Time project every year. It’s fun to be able to work with people. There are a lot of people out there really into volunteering,” said Smith.The group completed phase one of the project on Saturday, but Smith will continue working towards plans for phase two, which will include an interpretive sign at the site. The sign probably won’t be up until next summer, she said.Besides increased traffic through the area, Smith said that Forest Service site monitors have noticed people vandalizing the area by pecking their name into the rock.”The Forest Service has chosen in the past not to pay particular attention to the site because it is not being vandalized. We hadn’t seen a lot of vandalizing going on up here,” she said.The Forest Service only recently decided to manage the area.”I think it’s okay for people to walk up here, but it is important to be careful. These are pretty fragile and they’re old,” said Smith. “See them, but don’t touch and disturb them,” she said.The area is also sensitive because the rock is exfoliating in some areas due to exposure and the natural weathering process. There is also a sensitive plant growing at the site, called the “Starved Daisy.””We don’t need to add to this by our behavior,” she said.”I think of this as a sacred place, even more reason to respect it.”
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