Joan Price has spent the last two decades studying the Jornada Mogollon rock art at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, a remote location in central New Mexico that boasts more than 21,000 petroglyphs and a partially excavated prehistoric village.
Price, an artist and research associate with the Jornada Research Institute, frequents specific locations at the site, including petroglyphs that reference ancient calendars. As an artist, Price studies how the rock carvings were made. As a researcher, she’s part of a broader effort to learn who made the carvings and what they mean.
All that may come to an end if vandalism and defacement continue at this site, located 17 miles north of Tularosa, New Mexico, and 28 miles south of Carrizozo, New Mexico. Billed as a recreation and picnic site, Three Rivers is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management’s Las Cruces Field Office—located more than 100 miles away.
“We know this was a sacred place for people over thousands of years,” Price said. “Those of us who are concerned about these ancient libraries—this equivalent of the Library of Congress—we know that when these petroglyphs are gone, they’re gone.”
During recent visits to the site, Price found plaster handprints and footprints pressed onto the stones alongside the ancient art, and red paint covering petroglyphs. She also reported evidence of human excrement near sacred ceremonial images, along with pitons hammered into the rock faces by climbers.
“There’s a certain kind of American people who seem to think the landscape is some kind of game board,” Price said. “When we use public lands for recreation, we’re opening them up to a very destructive group of people who think ‘public’ means ‘party.’ These sites took generations to make, and people can get in there and destroy them in half an hour.”
Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is one of the largest rock art sites in the Southwest, and it is one of few locations set aside solely because of its rock art, said Bill Childress, manager of the BLM’s Las Cruces Office. Some of the petroglyphs were made by simply scratching through the dark patina on the exterior of the rock, while others were carved deeply into the stone.
Although researchers have tied the petroglyphs to a group of prehistoric Native Americans called the Jornada Mogollon, no modern tribes have claimed the site, Childress said. This, along with the ongoing recreational use at Three Rivers, is raising questions about whose responsibility it is to preserve and upkeep such places.
A host lives on-site at Three Rivers, Childress said, and a maintenance staff takes care of amenities like the bathrooms and the picnic and camping sites. But Three Rivers is located two and a half hours from Las Cruces, and the BLM office, charged with protection of resources, employs just two law enforcement officers to patrol 5.4 million acres of public land.
“Three Rivers is a site the BLM has managed for decades,” Childress said. “We’ve had vandalism off and on through the course of time. We have some substantial, beautiful petroglyphs and thousands of panels of rock art. From time to time we get people doing the wrong thing.”
For example, the BLM has dealt with people using chisels or hammers to chip off rock art and remove it from the site. Other people decide to make their own drawings on panels. The most recent incidents, Childress said, involve people making muddy prints on the rocks with their hands or feet.
“People use poor judgment,” he said. “We recognize that. All we can do is continue to do outreach and educate people.”
But Laurie Weahkee, of New Mexico’s Cochiti and Zuni Pueblos, wants to see more done to protect sacred sites. Weahkee has worked since the 1990s to protect and preserve petroglyphs from housing and road developments, vandals and thieves. She is calling on local tribes and pueblos to come forward and claim Three Rivers.
“Ideally, this should be joint management,” she said. “In theory, the federal government should be working with all tribes with ties to the site. This might be a particular tribe’s sacred area. If someone can claim it, then the BLM suddenly has a different responsibility—to consult with tribes and make sure the petroglyphs don’t get desecrated or vandalized.”
Price echoed the call for tribal ownership of the site.
“I think it’s overdue,” she said. “Someone has ties to this site, and someone can get in there and make better decisions to preserve this.”