The Indian Hunter 

James Benney is so inspired by the East Bay's dozens of Native American sites that he published his own guidebook about them. So why do all the experts wish he hadn't?

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As Benney continues to explore, new finds come up almost every week, including another major village site just two weeks ago. Over the last year and a half, he has posted approximately ten of the least sensitive new locations on his Web site. "I'm being a little more cautious," he said. "I'm trying not to antagonize everybody too much."

But he hopes not just to make the public aware of the sites, but also to bring his favorite village back to life as a living museum. As part of what he calls his Hundred-Year Plan, Benney proposes that the parks and water districts remove any signs of modernity from the site and its environs — cattle fences, phone lines, dirt roads, cow ponds — then rebuild the village with native materials and institute on-site interpretive programs.

Benney first presented his plan to officials with the East Bay Regional Parks District in 2001, mere months after discovering the site, and has since forwarded it to an additional thirty or so people. His only official response came from the Contra Costa Water District, whose cooperation is essential to Benney's vision, as the main portion of the site sits on its land. "The District appreciates your understanding of the significance of Native American sites on Los Vaqueros Watershed," watershed and lands manager William Chilson wrote. But he went on to explain that since the district is prohibited by law from disclosing the site's location, it cannot develop the area for public visitation. The letter concluded with an appeal to Benney for his cooperation in "keeping the location of identified cultural resource sites on Los Vaqueros Watershed confidential."

Benney's plan may look dead in the water, but he won't admit defeat — after all, he's already achieved his goal of bringing attention to the site. He remains convinced that this awareness will spark sufficient protective measures and someday result in supervised public access and education.

Not all of the East Bay's valuable Native American cultural resources are kept secret. The Vasco Regional Preserve is one of the East Bay Regional Parks District's most sensitive and sheltered areas, with its entire 1,400 acres enclosed by fences. Beyond protecting threatened natural resources — including fragile rock formations and endangered species such as the kit fox, the tiger salamander, and one of the world's largest populations of golden eagles — the preserve is home to rare Native American pictographs. Still, public access is allowed to a small portion of the preserve via small-group hiking tours led by park naturalists.

This beautiful environment of endless rolling hills and ancient sandstone outcroppings offering views of the Central Valley, the Sierra Nevada, the delta, and Mount Diablo has long been considered an especially sacred place among local tribes. It's easy to see why. Today many of the area's hilltops are speckled with giant white wind turbines, but Vasco, which lies directly east of Los Vaqueros Reservoir, feels otherwise locked in time, impervious to the development overrunning nearby communities such as Brentwood, Oakley, and Antioch.

Even so, the pictographs here — native works of art using natural pigments, often red, on rock surfaces — are so sensitive that they are continually degraded by weathering, despite being partially sheltered by the caves in which they were created. They also face an unnatural threat that poses an even greater concern. Ever since the park began offering guided public tours in 2005, vandalism has increased notably. Of the few pictographs shown to visitors, one contains a striking example of what rock art graffiti can look like: Across the face of a series of depictions of the region's majestic raptors measuring a couple feet across, the words "Gary Was Here" are scrawled into the rock, partially obscuring one bird's wing. Elsewhere in the park, the word "fuck" is carved near multiple pictographs.

To prevent damage born of ignorance and malevolence, the preserve is patrolled heavily by land and air. A park-owned helicopter surveys the area for trespassers twice a day, while naturalists, rangers, and public safety officers conduct random patrols, even looking for footprints in the dirt. It's a level of security unique within the park district's 65 regional parks and 97,000 acres across Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Yet even in conjunction with the public interpretive and educational services the park offers to explain the pictographs' importance, it's not enough to keep them safe.

To many observers, the situation is solid evidence of the correlation between public awareness and site damage. Barring 24-hour security, which the district says it doesn't have the funds to implement, damage is virtually impossible to prevent. And the remote mortar sites in Benney's book, some argue, could presumably be subject to even more extensive damage.

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