Whitewater petroglyphs may be in jeopardy

ANCIENT ROCK ART near Whitewater is among some drawings estimated to be 2,000 to 4,000 years old, according to a specialist.

Petroglyphs in the Whitewater area may be threatened by recent and future development, according to one local resident.

“You can’t replace those. When they end up crushed, you will never see that again,” Whitewater resident Melody Safken said of four panels in a concentrated area on private property near the Old Spanish Trail.

One of the panels, which depicts a horse and bear paws surrounding a mountain sheep, has slipped some in the last month, Safken said. The damage is being done by workers laying sewer pipes and gas lines and constructing roads, she said.

Mesa County officials and a noted rock-art specialist, however, disagree.

“The petroglyphs are at least a quarter-mile off the road from our project,” said Julie Constan, a county engineer.

“I think our project is most likely not affecting any movement that may be occurring at these sites.”

The county has been aware of the petroglyphs for years and had them evaluated by the Colorado State Historical Society in 2004, said Pete Baier, director of Mesa County Public Works.

The society determined the petroglyphs should not incur damage from the installation of sewer lines, Constan said.

Carol Patterson, a rock-art specialist who has been studying petroglyphs for three decades, said the construction is not affecting the rocks.

“I don’t think where they are doing construction on the road has anything to do with the rocks up there,” Patterson said. “As long as they are 250 to 500 feet from it, I don’t think there is going to be any homes close enough to impact it.”

She said there are only a few similar examples in the state of petroglyphs such as the ones in Whitewater, which are alongside an ancient game trail. She estimated some of the drawings are 2,000 to 4,000 years old.

Near the site of the ancient drawings soon will be an invasion of sewer pipes, roads, public buildings, homes and businesses. Mesa County is preparing to build a new animal services building and a public works shop next to the Mesa County Landfill. 

Meanwhile, Whitewater Development LLC,  managed by Steve Hejl, is preparing 478 acres east of the landfill for homes and a business park.

To keep ahead of the growth, the county is building a lifting station for wastewater, which will be piped across the Colorado River to Clifton Sanitation’s treatment plant at 32 and D roads.

“I am not against development. We have been begging for this out here,” Safken said. “I want them to figure some other way to put their stupid sewer in so the petroglyphs don’t fall.”

There are ways for development and history to co-exist, said Roland McCook, a great-great-grandson of Chief Ouray.

“It has been done over and over by other developments where they have detoured around historical objects and sites of any kind that are worth saving,” McCook said. “Anyone developing anything should be aware, and it is up to them to demonstrate their care.”

He said one of the petroglyphs depicts horses, so it must have been done sometime after the Spanish arrived, perhaps in the 17th century. He said some of the petroglyphs are in a precarious position on the hillside, but he could not say the current level of development, natural forces, or the nearby railroad tracks are causing damage to them.

“They are one-of-a-kind in that area,” McCook said. “I would like to see them preserved in some way. That is a part of history.”


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