Despite closure orders that restrict public access in America’s first congressionally designated wilderness, forest officials are concerned that site barriers and interpretive signs charred in the fires no longer adequately protect these vulnerable sites from further degradation.
Los Padres Tribal Liaison Pete Crowheart and Forest Archaeologist Loreen Lomax recently led a team of resource specialists on a 10-mile, nine-hour hike to evaluate two sites scorched in the 2007 Zaca Fire. They documented the extent of the damage and developed ideas for repairing the barriers and signs. One of California’s largest wildfires, the Zaca burned 237,000 acres over nine weeks. Fire-cost recovery funds recently secured by the forest are fueling restoration projects within the Zaca’s massive footprint.
“The native Chumash left an amazing legacy that opens a window for us to better understand their culture and their way of life before the arrival of Europeans,” Lomax said. “We have an obligation to ensure these sites are managed in a way that preserves them for future generations.”
The trail leading to these remote locations is riddled with washouts and infested with legions of western black-legged ticks, rendering the sacred sites nearly inaccessible. Crowheart demonstrated an uncanny ability to maneuver through the dense vegetation and streambeds as he guided his colleagues through the maze of new growth whenever the trail vanished.
Many of the Chumash sacred sites contain cave paintings that depict their culturally significant images such as the California condor, deer and other wildlife. It is unknown exactly what these mysterious symbols meant to the shamans, the Chumash priests, who painted them. Some historians contend they represent mythic figures, natural phenomena or abstract concepts. Estimates vary on the exact age of the paintings, but the historical importance of these cultural treasures is not in doubt.
In addition to fire damage, some of the rock art sites have been vandalized by careless visitors, and forest resource officers do not divulge their precise locations so as to preserve these irreplaceable cultural heritage.
“These sites are sacred to the Chumash, and the threats to their existence are very real,” Crowheart said. “We’re working with the tribe to maintain the integrity of these special places, and wherever possible we’re improving the safeguards we have at these locations.”