Steve Acerson stopped his car and waited for the shooting to stop.
It was coming from the left, where a group of three men were shooting across the dirt road at a target pinned to a fence, just several yards away from a sign that warned about cultural artifacts in the area. Up the mountainside were several petroglyphs, ancient etchings into rocks made thousands of years ago.
At least, they used to be there. That was until the pictures became so riddled with bullet holes the pictures were either broken off or disfigured beyond recognition.
The shooting stopped and Acerson safely passed the shooters. This was the site that made Acerson realize he had to do something to preserve the remaining rock art on Lake Mountain.
“Most people are good people,” Acerson said as he drove past. “But why they don’t listen, why they don’t read…”
Acerson, the president of the Utah Rock Art Research Association, is taking protecting the rock art on the west side of Utah Lake into his own hands. Along with a handful of association volunteers, he sat at a popular shooting site within sight of multiple petroglyphs over the Easter weekend to deter shooters from shooting at that location.
“If we’re not sitting here, a shooter’s sitting here, and his bullets have a chance to take it out,” Acerson said.
The rock art activists sat in foldable chairs at the site Friday and Saturday, and were planning to return Sunday. They also investigated the rock art in the area and picked up litter left by shooters.
Acerson doesn’t believe most of the shooters damaging the rocks are doing it on purpose. The older etchings have returned to the original color of the rocks they’re on, which makes it difficult to spot unless someone knows what they’re looking for.
Acerson estimates the rock art by Utah Lake is some of the oldest in the state at 10,000 years old. The pictures have been pecked into the rocks by American Indians who were alive at the same time as woolly mammoths and used the lake as a thriving hub.
Looking for the rock art is like stepping back in time for Acerson. It’s easy to look at the depictions of bighorn sheep, birds and foot and handprints on the rocks and imagine a different time as pelicans silently flew overhead — that is, except for the constant gunshots going off in every direction around the site and the broken clay pigeon shards scattered around the rocks.
It’s a constant distraction that makes sitting on the sites unnerving for the volunteers.
“Every time a bullet goes off, your natural reflex is to run,” Acerson said.
The Bureau of Land Management has signs up in the area warning about the rock art, but many have been shot beyond readability. The fences aren’t working either. Instead, it’s cut as people create a shooting lane in the area.
Boulders were placed in front of some of the rock art panels three weeks ago. There’s already bullet holes in them.
And as Utah County’s growth brings more and more people out to the area to shoot, especially on weekends, it’s only expected for the damage to get worse as people shoot into the mountainside and unintentionally hit rock art they didn’t know was there.
“The only way for the rock art to be saved is for the shooting to stop,” Acerson said.
He said 99 percent of the shooters who find out about the rock art are respectful about it. But there’s also the 1 percent.
Diana Acerson, Steve’s wife, said the rock art is important to preserve to remember that people were in the area thousands of years ago doing the same things they do today.
She said the art was done in the area for a reason.
“Three generations from now, it’s going to be gone,” she said.
The Easter weekend signaled the start of the busy shooting season on the lake’s west side. The rock art group plans to have members continuously sitting on the sites where the rock art is.
The goal is to eventually have trails go by the rocks so people can discover the art and children can go on school trips to the area. But a plan to ban shooting in the area is still waiting on final, federal approval, and people likely aren’t going to hike around the area if there’s constant gunfire going in the area.
For an area obsessed with genealogy, Acerson describes it as a local Ancestry.com — and also wants others to have a desire to protect it.
“This stuff survived for 10,000 years, and the human footprint is going to destroy it in five minutes,” he said.
To get involved in the protection efforts, contact Acerson at email@example.com.