Fire swept over Utah rock art but this preserve avoided any catastrophic damage

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rock art at Adelbert Doyle Smith Family Preserve on Utah Lake’s west shore on Monday, July 6, 2020, after a fire burned through the site.

Saratoga Springs • Several years ago, the descendants of farmer Adelbert Doyle Smith donated 197 acres to a nonprofit to create a preserve, protecting hundreds of ancient petroglyphs Native Americans chiseled into rock outcrops overlooking the west shore of Utah Lake.

Until a week ago, the Smith Family Archaeological Preserve was available for tours and was being surveyed for a potential listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Now its future is uncertain after a motorist allegedly drove his vehicle onto the fenced-off preserve June 28, igniting a wildfire that swept over nearly all 240 of its known rock art panels.

“It has destroyed the natural setting. The cheat grass will take over. This used to be good habitat,” the preserve’s volunteer manager Randy Griffin said Monday while surveying the damage.

The motorist has been charged with misdemeanor trespassing and criminal mischief for allegedly evading a road closure put in place as a result of the Knolls Fire, which had been sparked by what officials suspect was an abandoned campfire only a few hours before.

The Knolls Fire was named for a string of knolls along Utah Lake’s west shore, two of which are on the preserve. It started on public land near the northern-most hill, which has become heavily used for unregulated public recreation, much to the dismay of Griffin, who has long complained that irresponsible users pose a threat to public safety.

High winds drove the Knolls Fire several miles north and forced the evacuation of 3,100 homes in Saratoga Springs, reducing one to a pile of rubble and ash.

While the Knolls Fire started just outside the preserve, it never threatened it, according to Griffin. The damage came from the secondary fire dubbed the Mile Marker 17 Fire, named for the spot on State Road 68 where a 21-year-old Riverton resident allegedly cut a fence to drive onto the private property between the highway and the lake. That mistake cost the man his vehicle, which was destroyed in the ensuing fire, and sent his passenger to the hospital with severe burns.

The fire damage to the preserve was bad enough, but potentially worse is the mile-long fire break a bulldozer cut across the preserve from State Road 68 to the lake, according to Griffin. The dozer work did confine the fire to a 388-acre oval, likely saved a home just south of the preserve and blocked the fire’s northward progress.

South of the line, the preserve is charred over and stripped of living vegetation. Griffin fears the 17-foot-wide dozer cut could become a deep erosion scar.

The bulldozer carved a line that crosses the preserve’s trail system in four places and ascended a hill on its way to the lake. The dozer cut the break around the north side of the hill; had it gone over the top the dozer would have torn through many rock art panels.

The driver appears to somehow have avoided rolling over any rock art sites, according to Christopher Merritt, the deputy director for the Utah State Historic Preservation Office. His office dispatched a crew to the preserve Monday to examine the dozer track and assess any damage the fire may have inflicted on the rock art panels.

“We honestly lucked out. It came within three feet of one [panel], but none appear to be damaged,” he said. “We are mapping the dozer line to see if they cut up buried features like hearths or a pit house.”

The archeological preserve operates on a shoestring and depends entirely on volunteer labor and donations. It has no resources to repair the dozer scar or replace the fencing destroyed in the fire, but Griffin hopes various agencies will step up to help. The costs could run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The Smith preserve is one of more than 500 the Archaeological Conservancy oversees in 46 states, and among the largest in Utah.

The site was once occupied by Fremont Indians, whose largest known villages have been recorded on the opposite side of Utah Lake near the Provo River, dating back more than 1,000 years. But other than a ring of rocks, few signs of permanent habitation can be found. Perhaps it was a seasonal outpost where fish and game were hunted, but it would be hard to ever know for sure.

Fremont rock art sites are common around Utah Lake, but irresponsible target shooting has marred panels near Payson as well as in the Lake Mountains. By contrast, the sites on the old Smith property have been protected for generations and remain unblemished to this day.

While the recent fire does not appear to have damaged the rock art, Merritt is concerned that its heat may speed up the rock’s exfoliation.

Images depict birthing figures, deer and bighorn sheep, spirals and what appear to be nets, perhaps used by the Fremont to harvest the now-absent cutthroat trout that once thrived in Utah Lake. Some show humans in ceremonial attire or engaged in hunting or ritualist activities.

Researchers believe the preserve’s rock art spans multiple cultures, including a people who inhabited Utah so long ago that scientists call them Archaic. Griffin leaned toward one abstract image, pointing out differences in the ways chiseled surfaces are colored depending how long they were pecked out.

“That’s an example of Archaic because the patina has come back. It can go back 5,000 years,” he said.

Unlike the Anasazi petroglyphs or even more ancient pictographs seen in southern Utah, these images blend into the dark rocks and many have gone unnoticed for years.

Surveyors are continuously finding ones that were previously unknown. The fire may change that. Griffin suspects many more artifacts will be discovered now that the sagebrush and grasses are now burned away.

“This is the perfect time to look for it,” he said. “Who knows what they may find.”