Preserving Sacred Sites

Our Native Heritage Program

ForestWatch monitors road construction, off-highway vehicle use, and livestock grazing to ensure that they do not encroach upon or damage sensitive cultural sites. We work to ensure full compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires the Forest Service to consult with the State Historic Preservation Officer whenever any activity could affect these sites. By doing so, we hope to provide lasting protection for these sacred areas.

In coordination with tribal members and agency officials, we advocate for a forest-wide inventory to better document the locations of these important heritage resources, and will urge the Forest Service to list all eligible areas on the National Register of Historic Places to ensure permanent protection.

Los Padres Cultural & Sacred Sites

Within the boundaries of what is today known as the Los Padres National Forest, five Native American cultures – the Chumash, the Salinan, the Esselen, the Tataviam, and the Costanoan – thrived for centuries. Today, many areas of the Los Padres retain their cultural and spiritual significance to Native peoples.

Chumash rock art found at a site within the Los Padres National Forest. Photo by Chuck Graham.

About one hundred prehistoric rock art sites are found in the Los Padres. These fragile and unique sites represent one of the richest records of prehistoric rock art in the world, and are part of an estimated 20,000 cultural sites within the forest. Other sites include the remains of ancient villages, burial sites, rock shelters, and ceremonial locations. In addition, certain peaks and other landforms continue to provide spiritual and cultural value to Native American communities, including the Ventana Wilderness, Mount Pinos, Figueroa Mountain, Hughes Ridge, Rincon Creek, the Sespe area, and the Cuyama Valley.

So important are these sites that the Forest Service has placed 51 of them on the National Register of Historic Places. The agency has identified another 89 sites across the forest that are eligible for such designation. Once placed on this list, the Forest Service is obligated to protect these sites from further destruction.

Threats to Sacred sites

The same activities that threaten forest ecosystems – OHV abuse, livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling – may also damage or destroy sites of cultural and spiritual importance. According to the Forest Service, unauthorized OHV use has the greatest potential to damage or destroy these heritage resources. Other areas are threatened by thoughtless vandalism, overuse, or unmanaged recreation.

Other times, the Forest Service itself bears direct responsibility for the destruction of these important sites. As a result of whistleblowing by Los Padres staff, the forest was placed on “provisional status” by the State Historic Preservation Officer for numerous instances of cultural resource destruction, including the construction of a road through a prehistoric village. Click here to read a detailed report on the Forest Service’s mismanagement and destruction of cultural resources on the Los Padres.

Despite this rich cultural record contained in the Los Padres, the Forest Service has failed to adequately monitor and even identify the location of heritage sites. To date, the agency has surveyed only 6% of the Los Padres, and has failed to conduct any large-scale surveys to accurately document and protect unknown sites. The need for such large-scale surveys is immediately apparent – unauthorized OHV use occurs primarily in areas that have not been inventoried, resulting in damage to an untold number of cultural and historical sites.