Monday, May 10, 2004

Forest Service seeks ways to help Red River Gorge

Visitors are welcome, but they're damaging artifacts

The Associated Press

SLADE - Starting this week, the U.S. Forest Service will hold meetings to discuss the future of Red River Gorge.

The agency, which oversees the 40,000 acres as part of the Daniel Boone National Forest, is looking for ways to balance the protection of resources and debilitating public traffic.

The "Limits of Acceptable Change," as the Forest Service calls the two-year process, will focus attention on the trash, graffiti, erosion and other problems caused by some of the 500,000 people who visit the gorge each year.

Four years ago, the Forest Service began charging a $3-per-vehicle fee for overnight camping in the gorge, and banned camping and building fires near cliffs or overhanging rock shelters.

But it appears likely that more restrictions could be placed on camping, hiking, canoeing, rappelling and rock-climbing.

There are many overhanging rock shelters in the gorge. Some were used by Native Americans who arrived in the area more than 12,000 years ago. About 3,000 years ago, they began growing crops near the shelters - the earliest known agriculture in the eastern United States.

Tim Eling, a Forest Service employee who is in charge of the Limits of Acceptable Change process, took a Lexington Herald-Leader reporter and photographer through the gorge recently.

One shelter, called Big Daddy, had the initials "KMD" and a date from this year carved into a rock. And "LM" left spray-painted initials, along with a drawing.

Ashes from a recent campfire showed that the ban on rock shelter fires had been ignored.

Campfire charcoal - and broken glass, beer cans and even human waste - can mix with prehistoric charcoal and artifacts and ruin a potential archaeological site.

"This one in particular is pretty much destroyed," Eling said of the Big Daddy shelter.

Also being damaged are petroglyphs - images scratched into rocks by prehistoric people.

One, which was thought to be about 3,000 years old, showed a stick figure of a man and a child's foot carved into a sandstone boulder. Modern experts thought it might have been the site of religious or fertility rituals.

Forest Service workers covered the boulder with dirt and rocks to protect it. But someone built a fire directly over the boulder, and the heat destroyed the petroglyph.

What Eling says he hopes comes out of the Forest Service project are a better understanding of just what is in the gorge, and standards to protect those things that are being destroyed.

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