Not long ago, I entered a canyon with Diane Orr, the head of preservation at the Utah Rock Art Research Association. The walls were tortuous and scarred, marked with serpentine breaks where rock gave way to underground springs that seeped from beneath the bedrock. This was a desert landscape that went against conventions, a sheen of emerald enveloped in a bottomless dark, trees looming, light all but swallowed by canopies of leaves and stalks of chalky white flowers.
At its end, the back plates of an ankylosaur — a bulky, armored dinosaur that once romped around Utah’s formerly wet, shrubby climate — were exposed, fossilized into immortality at some point during the Cretaceous. Nearby, dark strands of pigment were scrawled, revealing faces with hollow eyes and sharp, carnivorous teeth. Overhead, painted insect-like beings escaped into the cracks, flanked by humanesque figures not much larger than the nail on my thumb. Birds were incorporated throughout, some migrating through the porous folds in stone, others firmly clutched in the hands of the teethed characters.
These rock art images have remained in this space for several thousand years, haunting visitors with their unspeakable power, suspending a thin veil between the realm of dreams and our physical reality. As I continue to listen to elders and storytellers from various tribes, I find that rock art — spaces much like this — are often described as places in which living spirits reside, perhaps, in part, as a culmination of a person’s thoughts and experiences — their memories.
As painter Erik Pevernagie puts it, “We are what we remember. If we lose our memory, we lose our identity and our identity is the accumulation of experiences”
Losing rock art is the loss of memory — the loss of spirit and identity — like burning photographs of those you have loved and lost, watching their memories and the moments you have shared fade to fine, gray ash.
Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. John Curtis have introduced legislation that could position this sacred place and its spirit at the whims of oil and gas development. While this legislation may seem innocent, its exclusions — often comprised of landscapes of interest to energy extraction — seem too suspect to ignore. I am concerned that this bill will be used to legitimize development in cultural areas, citing that this over-arching legislation has already determined which areas are “worthy of protection.”
This is not, as it may seem, about energy. It is about prioritizing real cultural resources over speculative development, establishing uses and resources where they are most fit, and putting authority in the hands of those best equipped and most informed — ethical and moral standards in which this bill fails.
The exclusions are painful: the Molen Reef, San Rafael Desert, Muddy Creek, Mussentuchit Badlands, and Cedar Mountain — cultural landscapes that arguably encompass a majority of Emery County’s archaeology. Diane and I, with the encouragement of the Bureau of Land Management, have intensely investigated much of these unprotected areas, revealing hundreds of sites ranging from sinuous, volcanic petroforms — boulders arranged on the surface of the earth into symbols and images — to sprawling rock art panels and disguised granaries, constructed for obscurity rather than difficulty of access.
As a result of this work, proposed leases in conflict with cultural resources were withdrawn since 2013. Recently, leases were approved in important archaeological areas left unprotected by this bill — a few of which were purchased for just $1.50 an acre. We believe the consequences of this legislation could further jeopardize these special and vulnerable places. As such, we believe it should be reconsidered to assure the preservation of cultural heritage.
Jonathan Bailey, Ferron, was born and raised in Emery County. He is a conservation photographer, member of Utah Rock Art Research Association’s preservation committee and author of ”Rock Art: A Vision of a Vanishing Cultural Landscape.”