The Early History of FSRA:

A personal Reflection
by Bill Drake
August 14, 2016

Since I was 18 I have had a deep interest in Native American history, culture, politics, and spirituality. In the 1970s I taught high school courses related to these subjects. I moved to Placer County, CA from back east in 1974. In the fall of 1987 I moved to Nevada City in Nevada County, CA. A year or two later I was able to attend an outing to a remarkable petroglyph site in the Sierra. The site consists of a single panel or grouping of images that dated from 500 AD to 2,000 BC. It is located at about 6,500 feet elevation near the edge of the American River canyon, with the wild and scenic North Fork of the American River 3,000 feet below. It was, and is, one of the most spectacular locations I have visited that has rock art. I was amazed to learn that there were Native American rock carvings in my region of California and found the site itself to be very special. I took great pains to learn how to get there and visited the site whenever I could.

In August 1989 I came across an article in the Sacramento Bee which, to my surprise, included a photograph of this site. The article noted that the panel had fractured over time and one or more pieces had apparently been taken away. The writer described efforts undertaken by several individuals to protect the site. Dan Foster, the state archaeologist for the California Department of Forestry, had workers create a barrier to prevent cars from driving close to the images. A stone mason had been brought in to apply cement around the fractured pieces of rock to keep them together. As well as Dan Foster, the article mentioned Will Gortner, who had spent some 30 summers studying this and other sites in the area, Cassandra Wahlstrom, who became an early member of FSRA, and a couple of other individuals.

I was concerned that average people like myself who cared about the site were not able to give a voice regarding its protection. I began to correspond with some of the people mentioned in the article. At one point someone suggested I approach Dick Markley, the Forest Archaeologist for the Tahoe National Forest (TNF). My friend Eric Peach, who had worked with me in reviving the environmental group Protect American River Canyons, and I then met with Dick. Dick was a firm believer in using volunteer help to protect resources on his forest, especially in light of his limited budget, and he encouraged us to start an organization for protecting rock art sites. (Eric did not stay involved after our meeting with Dick.)

In 1990 I came across an article in the Sacramento Bee which, to my surprise, included a photograph of this site. The article noted that the panel had fractured over time and one or more pieces had apparently been taken away. The writer described efforts undertaken by several individuals to protect the site. Dan Foster, the state archaeologist for the California Department of Forestry, had workers create a barrier to prevent cars from driving close to the images. Others had a stone mason apply cement around the fractured pieces of rock to keep them together. As well as Dan Foster, the article mentioned Will Gortner, who had spent some 30 summers studying this and other sites in the area, Cassandra Wahlstrom, who became an early member of FSRA, and a couple of other individuals.

In June of 1991, Dick organized a small meeting at the site I had been concerned about. I believe Dick was there as well as Will Gortner, artist and TNF archaeologist John Betts, and one or two other people. I proposed that we start a rock art protection group that would be named after the site. John wisely suggested a broader focus with the name Friends of Sierra Rock Art. At that moment, FSRA was born. We met a short time later near the Donner Summit site and things evolved from there.

In my mind, FSRA was created to serve two very significant functions. On one hand, this was an organization that would work to protect these precious cultural resources. On the other hand, a small number of people who were not archaeologists would be given the opportunity to visit sites that otherwise were only seen by a handful of professionals, without endangering the sites. These visitors, FSRA members, would naturally learn to care about the sites and want to protect them, while being educated to do so.

Dick put the resources of his department at our disposal. Bill Slater, head archaeologist for the TNF’s Nevada City district, soon became an important friend and mentor for FSRA. At a later point, Nolan Smith, head archaeologist for the TNF’s Foresthill District became a close friend and ally to us (and his wife Dee became an important member).

We grew as a group and one of our early involvements related to the newly created California Archaeology Month, which at the time was in May. At Dick’s urging, probably in 1992, we undertook a series of public presentations and art exhibits during that month in support of the month’s designation. I deeply believed in endeavors of this nature, which would help educate the public to appreciate cultural resources. This was a major annual effort for FSRA for a number of years. Stan Padilla, a Native artist who was on the FSRA board, took on the challenging task of coordinating the art exhibits. He continued in this role for some time and did a remarkable job. A number of us contributed art of various types. Our most ambitious year, 1995, we had 13 art exhibits in three counties as well as four public presentations. That same year we were deeply involved in trying to protect a rock art site in El Dorado County which was threatened by a proposed development. Because of these and other efforts in 1995, the following year we were awarded the Society for California Archaeology’s coveted Helen C. Smith award for contributions to California archaeology. We were the first non-professional organization to be given the award. At the time there were 40 organizations in the state related to archaeology, and we competed with groups such as the Bay Area Rock Art and Research Association, which had done important work in protecting the Ring Mountain site in Marin County.

During those first years Sonny Green and I developed an extensive outing schedule for FSRA members. We visited sites in our region in the northern Sierra as well as in southern California, the eastern Sierra, and Nevada. This helped our membership grow considerably. It also helped those who joined the outings deepen their interest in protecting such remarkable places. Each member of FSRA had to agree to a code of ethics, and guidelines were established to protect sites during visitation. Archaeologists were also asked to rate sites we might visit based on three categories. Some were too sensitive for visitation. Others were suitable for FSRA members only. And others, which were publicly known, were open to FSRA members as well as their guests.

As is the case today, in the early years, members were assigned sites on the TNF to monitor, and the TNF held trainings for FSRA members who were interested in overseeing sites. For a several years Bill Slater and I did presentations for local schools as well as the docents at Bridgeport State Park.

One thing I am especially grateful for involved increased protection for the site in the high Sierra which was so important to our founding. When FSRA was formed, the site was owned by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), a private lumber company. In late October or early November 1994, as president of FSRA, I took the TNF’s ranger for the Foresthill District (Rich Johnson), two land officers for the TNF (John Corbet and an assistant, Ken Warner), and a representative for the Trust for Public Lands (TPL) to the site. TPL had some money available from Congress with which they could buy land in order to protect it. My hope was that they would buy the land the site was on and then turn it over to the TNF. TPL was very interested in making this happen, however, a few days later two events occurred which made the idea unworkable. One was the November election, during which Congress changed hands, and the promised funds for TPL became less certain. The second was the first snow fall of the winter, which, along with additional snowfalls, made the site inaccessible until the following spring or summer. This meant the land around the site could not be surveyed immediately in order to facilitate a quick purchase. The TPL was forced to spend their money elsewhere before it became unavailable.

At that point, the idea of placing the rock art under the TNF’s control and protection looked hopeless. Sometimes, however, things have their own way of working out. In 1997 the TNF and Sierra Pacific Industries undertook a huge land swap. Just before the swap, the site was owned by a land development company. With encouragement and support from Ranger Johnson, and presumably TNF’s land officers, the TNF had SPI buy the land the site was on and throw it in as part of the trade. So in 1997 this wonderful rock art site finally became a part of the TNF and a long time dream of mine was fulfilled.

In addition to what has been mentioned, during our first ten years we were very involved in trying to protect sites jeopardized by a proposed divestiture of PG&E land (working with local Native people); we recorded, mapped, and/or surveyed sites for the TNF, the Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada, and the Bishop, California BLM office; and we undertook other endeavors on behalf of rock art.

Some of the early FSRA presidents that came after me included Sunny Green, Rich Nickel, and Debbie Sharp. My only regret about writing this reflection is that I can only name a few of the many people who made contributions to Friends of Sierra Rock Art.