MOAB — Federal officials said Tuesday that they are offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone who was responsible for damaging a famous petroglyph in Grand County.
The vandalism was first spotted at "Birthing Rock," alternately known as "Birthing Scene Petroglyph," near Moab on Monday, according to Grand County Commission Chairwoman Mary McGann. She said three of four panels were heavily damaged.
People visiting the site and tour guides were the first to come across the noticeable vandalism, she said. Pictures of the damage that emerged on social media showed that the petroglyphs were defaced with scribbling in addition to vulgar phrases and imagery and the term "white power."
Birthing Rock includes birthing images drawn on the rock by Native American groups at least as far back as the Ancestral Puebloan Culture, a couple of thousand years ago.
More petroglyph drawings were added through the years. Judging from photos, Elizabeth Hora, an archaeologist for the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, said it appeared most of the damage was to petroglyphs left by people from the Fremont Culture. The Fremont era in that area stretched from 500 A.D. to about 1300 A.D.
McGann said the images they left behind made for a "very unique" piece of Utah history.
"I don't think there's any other similar type of rock art panel," she told KSL.com. "It seems to be a celebration of birth. It's very beautiful, very sacred."
The rock is located on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The area is near Kane Creek Drive, which is a few miles southeast of Moab. It's a popular route for people heading to motor vehicle and biking recreation spots in the area.
A wooden fence was put up in recent years to keep people away from the rock and attempt to stop potential vandals as a result of increased visitation to the area, McGann said. That's why she believes whoever damaged the rock did so on purpose.
"The person who did this had to climb the fence and it had to be very intentional," she said. "This is not an accident."
BLM Utah officials tweeted late Tuesday afternoon that experts were in the process of working with professional conservators to review the damage and remove "the offensive graffiti." They urged people to not attempt to clean or remove the graffiti because it could lead to further damage, even if unintentional.
News of the recent incident quickly made its way around the area and local businesses were working together to provide a "huge" reward for information regarding the vandalism, she added. It's unclear if that was the $10,000 reward or if that would be tacked onto the reward the BLM announced late Tuesday.
Anyone who may have information regarding the incident is encouraged to call BLM Law Enforcement at 435-259-2131 or 800-722-3998. Requests for confidentiality will be honored, officials tweeted.
"It is up to all of us to protect public lands for future generations to learn from and enjoy," the agency added. "The BLM encourages everyone who visits public lands to practice Leave No Trace principles and visit with respect."
Other land vandalism has been reported in Grand County and across Utah over the past several years. Ironically, Birthing Rock was chosen to be the center of one of four Utah Division of History "Stop Archaeological Vandalism" campaign poster designs this year.
The campaign's message was: "The future is watching. Be awesome to the past." The campaign was set to roll on this year with ways that people could prevent such archaeological destruction in the state.
Hora told KSL.com that the poster featuring Birthing Rock was the only design specifically geared toward preventing vandalism like what happened to it over the weekend. The posters were in the process of being printed before being placed across the state when the division learned about the damage this week.
For state archaeologists, springtime into summer is when it seems the most land vandalism occurs. That's why the campaign was to be launched on a more public scale in the coming weeks.
"We're at the point of the year — and I hate this point of the year — where every single weekend there is damage," Hora said. "Every single Monday or Tuesday, we get reports into our office of archaeology that's been destroyed forever.
"I'm not pleased," she quickly added. "I would have preferred that image of the Birthing Rock to have remained a great example of protecting the past. ... I'm just so disappointed and so upset with the images that I'm seeing. It's why we need this program and why we need an archaeological vandalism campaign."
Another part of her frustration about the incident, she said, is that the BLM included signage in the area that made it clear of the site's significance in history in addition to the fence that is around the site.
It's still not clear how much archaeological vandalism has been affected by recent spikes in state and national park and recreation area visitation. Hora said examples on that scale are anecdotal but they have heard from state and federal land managing agencies about increases in intentional and unintentional damage to public land.
She penned a blog post a little more than a week ago that went into how people should handle petroglyph and other archaeological sites while outdoors. The post was the result of four other recent cases, including damage done to another ancient petroglyph located north of Moab found earlier this month.
A Colorado man told the Colorado Springs Gazette that he mistook the ancient rock art for graffiti and that he contacted the Bureau of Land Management's field office in Moab to confess to the damage after he was made aware of what he did.
The outlet pointed out that first-time violators can face fines up to $20,000 and one year of prison, under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
"Ultimately this a problem of education on our part," Hora said. "So we are committed to being good educators and helping people understand why people should protect the past."