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Federal officials say they are in contact with two people suspected of scratching initials and a date onto a rock last weekend next to a petroglyph panel in Utah's Nine Mile Canyon, one of Utah's richest archaeological areas.
The Bureau of Land Management declined to provide further details of the ongoing investigation, but officials conceded the vandalism illustrates the need to provide signs and other facilities to educate the increasing number of visitors about the famed canyon east of Price.
"We are talking about an interpretive plan with kiosks to tell the story of Nine Mile Canyon and tell the public about the importance of the resources there," said Ahmed Mohsen, BLM's acting field office manager in Price.
The canyon, which is actually more than 40 miles long, has been a popular destination for people drawn to its concentration of ancient art, estimated to be in excess of 10,000 images pecked and painted into rock. But it has seen heavier use since its dirt surface was hardened to accommodate industrial traffic associated with oil and gas development on the West Tavaputs Plateau.
Preservationists fear vandalism and looting could rise as more people drive through. To protect these resources and help the public appreciate them, they say, BLM must maintain a stronger presence in the canyon, with both staff and interpretive facilities.
"I suspect the situation will get worse because part of what protected it was its remoteness. What used to be a two-hour drive on a rough road is now a 40-minute drive you can do in the family Buick," said Dennis Willis, a former BLM staffer and board member of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition.
According to Willis, his group spent $25,000 crafting an award-winning interpretation plan for the canyon with a consultant in the mid-2000s, but the BLM never acted on it. He estimated it would cost a few hundred thousand dollars to implement the plan.
"Crafting the message is difficult and takes time," Willis said. "We have a big story to tell in that canyon and to tell that story you need all the chapters in the book. It's not adequate to do a site here and a site there."
A 2010 agreement with preservationists that allowed West Tavaputs drilling to move forward required the BLM to develop interpretive sites within 18 months, but little has been accomplished.
A kiosk was put up at Dry Canyon, marking a one-mile hiking trail up a side canyon lined with rock art. But Willis says the structure has no material posted, the brochure box has not been restocked and the trail has not been maintained.
The recent road improvements have proved a boon to preservation in some ways, however. Dust no longer obscures and damages petroglyphs and pictographs created by American Indians who inhabited the canyon until about A.D. 1250.
Now Carbon County is scheduled to fully pave the road beginning this summer, inviting even more visitation to the scenic canyon, also home to historic ranches. That project includes pull outs at seven rock sites in the main canyon.
"It's a situation where you have more people and there's more chance for mischief, but also more eyes on the ground watching what you're doing," said preservationist Jerry Spangler of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance. "People don't know you're not supposed to touch it. We have to do a more proactive outreach to the public."
More than 100 sites in the canyon are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and hundreds more have been documented by Spangler's group and others. The canyon has yet to be designated a historic district on the register, although the BLM has included 26,000 acres of it in an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACEC.
Road signs direct motorists to the Buffalo and Great Hunt panels near the end of the hardened road, about 45 miles east of Wellington where the road leaves U.S. Highway 6. But very little in the way of interpretation greets visitors who make this trip.
During the holiday weekend, the initials "JMN" and the date "5/25/14" appeared in the rock at the Buffalo site. The culprit had scratched the letters and numbers next to a well-known panel featuring a petroglyph of a pregnant buffalo and other animals as well as recent additions by visitors trying to imitate the ancient art. Also on the panel is historic graffiti showing a person's name in cursive and the date Aug. 19, 1887.
According to Spangler, a young man returned to the site early this week in an RV and told a nearby property owner he scratched the rock. The property owner urged the man to report himself to the BLM.