The Early History of FSRA

A Personal Reflection By Bill Drake, Co-founder of FSRA
August 2019

Bill Drake
Bill Drake

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. The next year I was able to attend an outing to a remarkable petroglyph site in the Sierra. The site, made by members of what is called the Martis Complex, consists of a single panel or grouping of images that dated from 2000 BC – 500 AD. 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.

On August 21, 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 been stolen. 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.

Dick Markley – 1991

I was concerned that average people like myself who cared about the site were not able to give a voice regarding its protection. (My having had a concern at the time is not to suggest that the measures taken in 1989 were inappropriate, given the circumstances. And, of course, if there were any public input, somehow the site location would have to be kept confidential.) I began to correspond with some of the people mentioned in the article. At one point Dan Foster 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, who was a firm believer in using volunteer help to protect resources on his forest, especially in light of his limited budget. When we asked about a group of non-professionals forming to help protect the site of concern, he was enthusiastic and encouraging.

Dick organized a small meeting at the site, which took place on September 10, 1990. As well as myself, there was Dick, artist and archaeologist John Betts, Native American artist Stan Padilla, Eric Peach, Arlo Acton, and Robin Martin who had a Martis site on their land, Bill Lindeman who was a state parks archaeologist, and author and environmentalist Julie Carville.

We agreed to start a rock art protection group that would tentatively be named after the site. Through developing protective measures for the site, we hoped to create a model that could help protect other sites.

I corresponded with the group members as well as Will Gortner over the winter, and we worked to further define our new group. At some point, John Betts suggested the name Friends of Sierra Rock Art (FSRA), suggesting a broader focus than just the site that was of initial concern, and we agreed.

We met on June 10, 1991 near the Donner Summit site as FSRA. The group included most of those who attended the September meeting as well as Will Gortner, Dan Foster, and a few other people. Things evolved from there.

(left to right) Will Gortner, Arlo Acton, Bill Drake – 1991, Photo by Hank Meals

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).

During the summer of 1991, we visited a few northern Sierra sites and held a training in site recording.

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, 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 several years 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 Research Association, which had done important work in protecting the Ring Mountain site in Marin County.

By the time of our May 1992 events, our membership included the individuals already mentioned as well as Jane Beggs and Steve Michel, Sharon Chandler, Tim and Lynn Dunbar, Carlys Gilbert, Kathi Keville, Gayle Kromydas, Hank Meals, Shirley Mraz, Cassandra Wahlstrom, Ted Noak, Jennifer Padgett, and Carrie Smith. By May 1996 we had about 80 members.

During those first years Sunny 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.

Some Sierra petroglyphs are at spectacular locations!

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. Bill Slater and I also did presentations for local schools as well as the docents at Bridgeport State Park.

One thing I am especially grateful for involved permanent 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. (Fortunately, their management was sympathetic to archaeological concerns and they were a good site steward. In fact, they paid for the efforts to protect the site by cementing the fractured pieces together in 1989.) 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 Corbett and an assistant, Ken Warner), and a representative for the Trust for Public Land (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 SPI undertook a huge land swap. Sometime before the swap, the site had been purchased by a land development company. With encouragement and support from Ranger Johnson, and presumably TNF’s land officers, the TNF had SPI buy back 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.

FSRA Field Work, Toiyabe National Forest – 1997

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.

The First 12 Years Of FSRA Accomplishments 1990-2001

  • 1991 – First official meetings of Friends of Sierra Rock Art.
  • 1991/1992 – First trainings for monitoring Tahoe National Forest sites; began annual site monitoring program.
  • May 1992 – Beginning of ongoing public education for California Archaeology Month; each May: four weekly public presentations and a series of art exhibits in public places.
  • 1992 – First project recording a rock art site.
  • During 1990s – Helped Bishop, California BLM archaeologist with site recording, site surveys, site monitoring.
  • During 1990s – Site advocacy work: urged members to send letters to advocate for endangered sites; FSRA sent letters to government agencies in support of site protection.
  • Early/Mid 1990s – Began involvement in annual Passport in Time Projects that made contributions related to archaeology work for the Forest Service (recording sites, doing surveys for new sites, etc.).
  • 1993 – Awarded certificate from the Society for California Archaeology for our 1992 contributions to archaeology.
  • Fall 1994 – Took Trust for Public Lands and TNF officials to Wabena site in hopes they would purchase it from private owner and donate it to TNF (this visit contributed to the site’s coming under the TNF’s ownership in 1997).
  • 1994-1995 – Efforts to protect El Dorado County site threatened by private development; numerous meetings with Native Americans, land owner, county officials; drafted site monitoring proposal.
  • May 1995 – Four public presentations and thirteen art exhibits in three counties for CA Archaeology Month 1995 – Worked on Nevada County ordinance for county’s general plan to protect cultural resources.
  • May 1996 – Awarded the Society for California Archaeology’s Helen C. Smith Award for significant contributions to California archaeology in 1995. We were the first non-professional organization to be given the award out of forty other organizations.
  • 1997 – Undertook a major project recording sites on the Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada.
  • 1997-2000 – Four annual Passport in Time summer projects in the Middle Fork American River area for the TNF Foresthill District Archaeologist; we inventoried 1,090 acres, monitored or re-monitored over 50 petroglyph sites, discovered 18 new petroglyph sites, and contributed over 1,200 hours of volunteer labor.
  • 1998 – At the initiation of TNF, FSRA began the process of creating educational signage at the Donner Pass site, which would include information on site behavior; done in collaboration with the TNF, the Washoe Tribe, and the Sierra Nevada Alliance; in 2006 FSRA was awarded a certificate from the TNF for its part in creating the sign.
  • 1999 – Work project at Donner Pass petroglyph site.
  • Early 2000-early 2001 – Many hours of work advocating for PG&E lands with rock art sites that were at risk of being sold at public auction; our intention was to steer these lands to the TNF; we worked with a branch of the Nisenan tribe and various organizations to protect these endangered cultural resources.
  • Annual trainings for Bridgeport State Park docents; slide shows for regional schools; and other activities.

At a March 2020 Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning (SAEL) school assembly, FSRA’s Nolan Smith and Bill Drake (two elders in center) present the site etiquette brochures that ten seniors created appealing to young people on how to behave at a rock art site. Classroom visits discussed the project, educated the students about rock art sites & the ancient people that made them, and took part in field trips to visit sites in the region in the Fall of 2019. Smith (holding the large plaque with copies of the brochures) & Drake also gave two teachers, the ten students, and the school Certificates of Appreciation for their contribution to rock art protection. Not all of the project students are present in the photo.