Autumn is a time Utah’s landscape struts it stuff. I look out my window at a mountain wearing a crown of snow. Its sagebrush cape is decorated with dark green conifers, golden aspens and scattered spots of red, pink and brown shrubs. Colors change like square dancers as the sun moves across the sky. We live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, but our actions suggest many people, including some our leaders, do not know how fortunate we are.
Below the mountain the water level line of old Lake Bonneville divides the home of deer, cougars and mountain wildlife from the rapidly growing housing developments built to provide homes for Cache Valley’s increasing human population. Giant machines change the landscape and reroute water runoff. Turfgrass lawns replace sagebrush and bunchgrass. Exotic plants attract foreign birds that sing a different song. Burning fossil fuel in our cars, homes and businesses changes the air we breath.
I look at that straight line along the base of the mountain and wonder what people were like when the area where I sit was under water. We have found a few tools and artifacts, but the thoughts and actions of people escape us. A scientist I respect tells me that petroglyphs and writings of ancient people have been found in Cache Valley, but their locations are kept secret to protect them.
Utah, as a whole, is rich with prehistoric artifacts. Forty-nine years ago I was the new dean of the College of Natural Resources at USU. I visited land and its managers in every county in our state. Sometimes I was guest of a landowner; at other times I visited USDA Forest Service, BLM or state land managers. Most of them were USU graduates. Almost everywhere there was evidence of prehistoric people.
In the early 1970s two colleagues and I planned a deer hunt in San Juan County. The day before season opened, we visited with Utah Fish and Game officers, USDA Forest Service, BLM and local ranchers in Montecello and Blanding. The consensus was that deer were on the move and there was a bumper acorn crop in a certain remote area. We drove to a spot the Fish and Game officer marked on the map and pitched our tent. We saw a few deer and lots of tracks.
The next morning just after sunup I killed, field-dressed and hanged a young buck to cool. I poured myself a cup of coffee, took my writing tablet, walked about the length of a football field and sat on a petrified log. Red rocks and open space formed a scene from another planet. I felt like I was the only human who had ever sat on that rock log.
I looked down. There, between my feet, was a pile of flint chips. Someone, sometime in the ancient past had turned a rock into an arrowhead, a knife or an ornament for a neckless. What did she look like? Where did she live? What did she eat in this barren landscape?
I found several other piles of flint chips as I investigated the soil surface near me. A half mile or so farther, I entered a narrow canyon. There were paintings on all walls. Were the images a form of writing to transfer ideas to the next generation? Or were they just local kids painting grafiti? Small cracks were homes for rats. Or were they storage areas?
Surrounded by messages from the past, I knew I was in a holy place. I backed out slowly and retuned to camp. My compadres had each killed his deer. They convinced me to drive back to Logan that night.
More than two decades passed before I returned to that spot. I hardly recognized the area. I had retired from USU and was living in New Mexico. Much of the land had been leveled by heavy machinery. A stock water tank had been dug in a clearing near where we camped. Fences subdivided the area into pastures. The sparingly traveled road we used to get to our hunting spot was a wide, sprawling mess of off-road vehicle (ORV) tracks.
I didn’t feel up to going to the slot canyon where the paintings had been. Since my last visit, I had seen similar paintings made by prehistoric people all over the world. Those paintings helped me understand what made humans different from other animals. Fortunately, remote areas in the Americas and Australia still have miles and miles of similar paintings in remote areas. Unfortunately, many, like those where I stood, are being discovered by people driving off-road vehicles.
One of the first columns I wrote for the Herald Journal 20 years ago was about a need to keep privately owned ORVs off public land. Now, two decades later, many ORV owners treat a useful farm and firefighting machine like a toy that, when mixed with ignorance and alcohol, destroys land health, historical artifacts and common decency.
Recent local laws allowing ORVs to be driven on public roads weakens public safety. We must not allow similar local laws to destroy our national treasures. Unless recreational ORV use on public land is banned, or at least vigorously restricted, by federal laws, we Americans will see many of our most loved assets change forever.