Horses, bikes push into petroglyph park

  • This park of petroglyphs was never meant for pure fun

    Diane Sylvain

On a windswept mesa west of Albuquerque, N.M., bicyclists and horses soon may be pounding the turf where Indians say the spirits of the dead like to travel.

The National Park Service is about to approve a new management plan that calls for the development of 11 to 16 miles of trails in the 7,000-acre Petroglyph National Monument (HCN, 12/12/94), the only monument in America dedicated largely to preservation of Indian rock art.

The plan would also establish private access points, not marked on any map, allowing residents of neighborhoods whose homes back against the monument to walk in and out through cuts in the extensive fencing the agency has built in the area. Those points would be determined privately between the Park Service and the neighborhoods.

Released in late December, the monument's final management plan and environmental impact statement caps a six-year controversy that has pitted environmentalists and Indians against bikers and horse riders. It's a big setback for environmental groups such as Friends of the Albuquerque Petroglyphs, which fought for years to get the monument created before Congress passed a monument act in 1990.

The Friends group had pushed hard for a plan that would allow only pedestrian access into the monument and limit access in some places to guided tours. But assuming that the Park Service approves the final plan as expected in early February, critics' only choice will be to sue, an option they are considering.

"This is not a use that can be managed," said Ike Eastvold, the Friends president. He predicted that a new trails network will draw crowds.

Congress, however, never meant the monument for pure fun; it even deleted recreation from its list of "public purposes."

Lawrence Beal, the monument's chief planner, said that his plan authorizes "public use" by the cyclists and not recreation. But he acknowledged that there's a "very fine distinction between the two.

"The law doesn't say, 'No recreation,' it just doesn't say 'recreation,' " Beal said.

The Park Service has been under heavy pressure to relax its rules and allow horse riders and mountain bikers. They occasionally ride through the monument area today and say that limiting access to foot traffic would deny many people the ability to see some of the 15,000 examples of rock art.

Except near petroglyph-viewing areas, said Beal, no rationale could be found to close the monument to bikers or horse riders.

Such arguments hold no water with leaders of the state's 19 Indian Pueblos. In the early 1990s, Pueblo Indian leaders told the federal government that they believed the monument held numerous spirit trails, traveled by the dead. The monument holds 15,000 Indian rock art specimens along a 17-mile-long cliff-like escarpment of deep-brown volcanic rock. The Indian groups said that the cliff is the nerve center of Pueblo culture, religion and tradition, and that prayers in the monument go beyond its boundaries to a reservoir of strength and power.

But the monument also lies directly in Albuquerque's westward path of growth. With homes abutting the monument's east boundary, and developers hoping to someday build thousands of homes just to the monument's west, this plan has become a flash point between those who would preserve the monument as it is and those who would make it a playground for suburbanites.

City officials who favor the trail system may soon get more clout to approve trails even without the Park Service's approval. Park Service officials say the laws and agreements governing the monument may not give the feds authority over thousands of acres of city-owned land in the monument. If the Park Service draws a formal conclusion that it lacks such authority, the city would be free to run that section of the monument as it wishes.

Pueblo Indian leaders and environmentalists contend that horses and cycles on trails would desecrate a site sacred to them. "When horses are on a regular route, they do their thing, and that's not really nice. The part of the Grand Canyon where the burros go is not very pleasant," said Bill Weahkee, director of the Five Sandoval Northern Pueblos, an Indian social service agency based in Bernalillo, 15 miles north of Albuquerque. "Bikes are the same thing. They are not going to be regulated, because the Park Service doesn't have enough manpower to do that. We're not saying all bikes are bad, but some of them are; some of them won't stay on the trails."

Horseback-riding interests see this plan as a compromise, because it contains seven fewer trail miles than the Park Service's earlier draft plan contained. "There are no petroglyphs near the trails," said Lynne Scott, a spokeswoman for the Greater Albuquerque Recreational Trails Committee. "If it's done properly, it can be done so it is not offensive to the environment or to any possible (Indian religious) sites. It's a lot of area out there."

The Park Service officials who drew up the plan say that they will simply improve and add signs and rock cairns to existing jeep roads and cattle trails on the monument, rather than build new trails. By requiring trail users to get permits and by forcing them to stay on the trails, the agency says, it can avoid damage to Indian cultural sites.

And while studies have predicted that the entire monument could someday draw up to 400,000 people yearly, compared to 88,000 visitors in 1994, and just 18,783 in 1988, Park Service officials say the trails by themselves won't draw a large number of additional visitors.

"It's not that much of a grabber of an experience," said chief planner Beal. "It's a wonderful place, but it won't be an exciting horseback, bicyclist's place like Moab, Utah. It's a more subtle kind of beauty."

The new plan comes over the opposition of the monument's advisory commission. Member Ray Powell Jr., New Mexico's state-lands commissioner, last fall accused the Park Service of arrogance for having disregarded the committee's feelings. "We give advice, but it is totally ignored," said Powell.

Tony Davis has covered the Petroglyph National Monument for High Country News for several years.

Questions and comments about the final Petroglyph Monument Management Plan should go to Superintendent Judith Cordova, Petroglyph National Monument, 6001 Unser Boulevard NW, Albuquerque, NM 87120; 505/899-0205.

No action will be taken until a record of decision is issued, some time after Feb. 6.

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