Grand County Council Plans to Desecrate Sego Canyon Ancient Indian Heritage Site
Years ago, I asked several Moab, Utah natives where to see the best of local Indian rock art. More than one suggested that I visit Sego Canyon, near Thompson Springs. From Moab, it was an easy drive north on U.S. Highway 191 North and then to Interstate I-70 East. Soon, I exited at the Thompson Springs off-ramp. From there, it was a short jaunt north via Utah Highway 94 to what remains of the town once called Thompson.
Blessed with adequate water in a desert environment, old Thompson was a natural gathering place. From the time of the Ancients until now, the wells at Thompson have supported human, animal and spiritual life. Water was so important in the region that the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway laid its mainline tracks through Thompson in the 1880s. From then until the advent of diesel trains in the mid twentieth century, every steam engine that plied those tracks stopped in Thompson for water. In his seminal book on desert ecology, Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey once traveled from Moab to the whistle-stop at Thompson to catch an eastbound passenger train.
In the 1890s, Harry Ballard discovered and mined coal in the upper reaches of Sego Canyon. For a few years, the town of Ballard flourished. In 1914, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad built a spur line from Thompson to the coal camp, which crossed the stream thirteen times in its five mile journey. In a precursor to what may soon reoccur in Thompson Springs, the watercourse at Ballard dried up and investors soon abandoned the enterprise. Today, Ballard is a ghost town, crumbling back into the floor of Sego Canyon.
In the early 1970s, when contractors finished Interstate I-70, its route paralleled both the railroad tracks and old U.S. Highway 6 & 50. As a remote highway construction camp, Thompson bloomed briefly in the desert. To this day, the Utah Transportation Department maintenance shed and yard serve the lonely stretch of I-70 between Green River, Utah and the western border of Colorado.
Sometime after I-70 opened, Thompson became the “Thompson Springs” that we know today. When the interstate highway bypassed Thompson Springs and steam trains no longer stopped, the town became an afterthought to the world of transportation. Old mobile home parks now stand empty of dwellings. During my visits, I found no overnight lodging available there. A motel and restaurant across from the old rail depot stood gutted and forgotten. Even so, a few hardy souls still live in Thompson Springs. Other than the trains that rumble through town, the people of Thompson Springs live with the luxury of a quiet existence.
Continuing north through Thompson Springs on Utah Highway 94, the road changes designations, becoming Sego Canyon Road and Thompson Canyon Road. Farther north, as it begins its ascent into the Book Cliffs, the road becomes BLM 159. With Thompson Wash winding alongside, signs of contemporary civilization quickly fall away.
About half way up to the border of the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation, there are a few wooden signs and a gravel parking area. From the parking area, it is a short walk to a series of Indian Rock Art Panels. Spanning several millennia, the panels include one in the ancient Barrier Canyon Style, several in intermediate Fremont Style and more art in Ute Historical Style. No other place that I know has such a concentration of high quality rock art from so many different eras.
After my first visit to the rock art panels at Sego Canyon, I dubbed them the “Sanctuary of the Ancients”. With so few visitors in the canyon, I found a solitude that one rarely finds in the High Southwest. The loudest sounds I heard were birdcalls and the rustling of sagebrush in the wind. My only living companions were cottontail rabbits and an occasional lizard, doing pushups on the rocks. As I watched, the changing light of afternoon brought life to the different figures carved, etched or painted upon the walls of Sego Canyon.
Not knowing ancient from recent Indian rock art, I formed my own creation myths from the figures that I saw. Some figures appeared to me as time travelers, perhaps from ancient realms or alternate dimensions. Others looked like families, holding tools and welcoming visitors to their land. If one were looking for ancient, mysterious or extraterrestrial characters to populate a play or novel, this would be their meeting place.
Upon my second visit, I had gained a bit more knowledge of Indian rock art. Even so, I experienced the same awe as on my first visit. Pausing, I looked up from the ancient Barrier Style rock art panel to see two godlike or perhaps human images imposed upon the stone surface above. Not until I returned to Moab and studied the photos from that day did I decipher the interwoven countenances that held court above that sacred site in Sego Canyon.
There, the faces I call Father Time and Mother Nature nestle in relief, cheek to cheek in loving ecstasy. Her countenance faces right, featuring voluptuous lips and nose. To her right and nestling with her face is a gray haired and bearded man, eyes closed in ecstasy. For millions of years they have occupied the canyon wall. A scant five thousand years ago, humans found this sheltered spot and carved or etched their sacred images upon the lower portion of the canyon wall.
Starting with the earliest of human civilizations, each generation seeks to leave its mark upon the land. From the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, to the Mayan temples in Central America, or the sheltered cliffs of Redrocks Country, humans have left their enduring mark. I often wonder how such stone edifices and drawings remain visible, even in our time. To me, they are the gifts from the Ancients to the people of today. In Sego Canyon, each succeeding culture revered the artwork laid down before, then added to the sacred artistry.
In the year 2014, the sanctity, solitude and ancient reverence of Sego Canyon may well end. After five or ten thousand years of respectful treatment by the humans who have visited Sego Canyon, the Grand County Council plans to put a stop to all of that. At present, all three options in the long-term usage plan for Grand County Public Lands dictate Sego Canyon’s demise. Without exception, all three plan options call for a fifteen mile long, one or two mile wide transportation corridor straight up Sego Canyon. Commonly called the “Hydrocarbon Highway”, this newly paved and widened road will serve a Mecca of tar sands mines planned beyond the rim of the Book Cliffs.
With their undifferentiated planning options, the Old Energy extractionists and their Grand County Council cronies have stacked the deck against antiquity and environmental preservation. Taking a shortsighted look at Grand County resources, council members and their Old Energy backers assume that there is no value in prehistoric and historic continuity at Sego Canyon. In the land beyond the Book Cliffs, there are tar sands to mine, hydrocarbons to extract and clean air to foul. As if there are no consequences for mining, transporting, refining and burning the dirtiest of fossil fuels ever discovered, the Grand County Council plans to help extract and transport as much dirty fuel as possible.
If a duly elected council proposed a hydrocarbon highway across Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, St. Peter’s Square in Rome or between the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, what would we think? No one in the civilized societies on this Earth would agree to such desecration of a religious site. Yet, Sego Canyon, as a sacred site, is older than Temple Square or St. Peter’s Square, and nearly as old as the Pyramids at Giza. If British Petroleum proposed a road and pipeline through the middle of Stonehenge, might the citizens of England raise their voices? By what right do seven council members in Grand County, Utah plan to desecrate and destroy one of the oldest sacred sites in the United States? We, the citizens of Gaia, this living Earth must raise our voices against the greedy desecration of the holy sites and sacred art at Sego Canyon.
If the seven council members have their way, they will end over five thousand years of human reverence for Sego Canyon. Instead, a paved highway will replace the winding dirt road and solitude will vanish from the land. When the last ancient rock art panel crumbles to the floor of Sego Canyon, will Father Time and Mother Nature still reside upon the brow of that canyon, or will they too fall in a heap on the canyon floor? Unless Grand County stops this folly now, we will have the human geniuses of its elected council to thank for the whole show.
In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey rafts down a section of the Colorado River through Glen Canyon. By the time he could publish that book, the sacred sites in Glen Canyon lay beneath one hundred feet of Lake Powell water. For the rest of his life, Edward Abbey wrote about, made speeches about and generally railed against the travesty of Glen Canyon Dam and the huge evaporation pond we call Lake Powell. Sixty years later, will we stand by, ringing our hands about the imminent loss of Sego Canyon? Alternatively, will we inform the Grand County Council regarding the error of their ways?
If you care about preserving the “Sanctuary of the Ancients” at Sego Canyon, Utah, please send a letter to:
Grand County Council
125 E. Center Street
Moab, UT 84532.
Telephone (435) 259-1342
Also, send a copy of your letter to:
Mr. Fred Ferguson
Legislative Director, Rep. Rob Bishop
123 Cannon HOB
Washington, DC 20515