For all of the knocks Las Vegas takes for imploding its recent history, the long-term history of the desert endures. But without any neon signage, it can be hard to catch. That’s why we need people such as George Phillips, project manager of the Cultural Site Stewardship Program, to keep track of the Valley’s ancient petroglyphs, pictographs and more.
“You can’t go very far in the desert in Clark County without coming across these sites. They’re just everywhere,” Phillips says. “People who aren’t accustomed to this walk by and don’t know it’s a site.”
The Cultural Site Stewardship Program, which began in 2004, is facilitated by the Public Lands Institute at UNLV and is in partnership with several federal agencies. The goal is to keep tabs on historic sites, which include the ancient art as well as old habitation shelters, pieces of tools and even rocks that have been aligned a certain way. The historic items come mostly from the Native American ancestors of the Southwest, including pre-Puebloans, Havasupai, Anasazi and Pauite.
Phillips and his team of more than 500 volunteers—consisting mostly of archeologists, students and retirees—monitor and document the sites. That way, if anything happens (such as the recent graffiti incident in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area), there’s at least a record of what the area originally looked like. The volunteers are trained through a class at UNLV and then they’re taken to visit a site, where they learn to look for damage or changes to the site.
“People were here when the Egyptian pyramids were being built,” Phillips says. “So if you compare it with other areas of emphasis, we’ve got the same interest, the curiosity is there and the knowledge really will have to come from study, and that takes a lot of time, education and money. And if it’s not done properly, it’s gone. There’s no way to recover that.”
Because there are so many sites across Clark County, the staff and volunteers from the Cultural Site Stewardship Program spend the most time monitoring sites that are in peril—that is, they’re in high-traffic areas or they consist of materials that can be taken. Phillips says the Valley’s rapid population growth is the biggest threat to the sites—off-highway vehicle use, hikers and cattle have all contributed to damaged sites. Because of many of the sites’ vulnerabilities, Phillips declined discussing any specific locations.
“We can’t afford to lose that material so we have people watch those,” Phillips says. “If there’s any change to them, if we notice there’s an increase in visitation by outside sources or if there is damage to the site, it’s all recorded right away.” Phillips will then distribute those reports to one of the five partner federal agencies, which take an active role in site protection. The Cultural Site Stewardship Program, on the other hand, approaches the art and artifacts from an academic perspective, focusing its efforts on studying and monitoring, and leaving the enforcement aspect to the proper parties.
“This is a one-shot deal,” Phillips says. “We’ve got one chance to preserve our heritage and the things that have occurred where we’re living now, long before we were here.”