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Von Werlhof desperate to save sacred sites from pipeline

April 14, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE

Staff Writer

PALO VERDE POINT — Here, at the northeastern corner of Imperial County, Halchidoma Indians centuries ago chiseled the image of their shaman and their entire creation story into sandstone rock faces to decorate sacred ceremonial grounds.

In a few weeks, construction workers hired by Portland-Ore.-based North Baja Pipeline will be working near those sacred grounds.

They'll be piloting heavy equipment, dredging land and burying a pipeline to connect an El Paso-to-Los Angeles natural gas pipeline running near Blythe with a Mexicali-to-Tijuana pipeline.

Imperial Valley College Desert Museum Director Jay von Werlhof, an Ocotillo-based archeologist, is worried the rumbling and seismic vibrations created by the pipeline construction workers could harm the Halchidoma's sacred sites, which include a petroglyph of a shaman, a petroglyph of the Halchidoma's creation story, an ancient bowl-shaped amphitheater and a symbolic recreation of Avikwami Mountain and the Trail of Dreams.


On a recent trip to the sacred grounds, von Werlhof noticed almost the entire weight of the rock face featuring the shaman petroglyph was balanced precariously on a flimsy sandstone boulder. It's one big rumble from crashing and crumbling to bits.

"Holy crimeny!" he exclaimed when he saw just how much the supporting boulder has eroded since the last time he visited the site.

To make sure the petroglyph is preserved before pipeline construction or a sudden earthquake destroys it, von Werlhof is looking into the possibility of having a plaster-cast version of it made. If he can't get permission to make a copy of the petroglyph, he's going to try to make sure it doesn't get harmed during construction.

To do that, he'll be meeting with Rebecca Apple this week.

Apple works for environmental planning firm EDAW Inc. of San Francisco, which will be employed by North Baja during construction.

Von Werlhof wants to hear Apple describe how she'll make sure as many sites as possible are saved from destruction. If he's not happy with her plan he'll make suggestions.

As part of the mitigation measures required by federal and state law, North Baja has to have an archaeologist take samples of land before construction crews move through and lay pipe.

If the archaeologist finds fossils or significant artifacts, some of the fossils will be salvaged before the work crews move through the area. What isn't salvaged will be destroyed.

It won't be possible for North Baja to avoid destroying some sites, according to the environmental impact statement prepared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the California State Lands Commission.

As for the most sensitive sites, FERC has identified 17 that it said will be affected by construction.

Von Werlhof doesn't think FERC engineers are qualified to determine which sites in the Imperial Valley will be affected.

He said they don't know the area like he and a handful of other archaeologists do and "They just aren't qualified to do that. They can't do that."

To compound the situation, the four-person federal commission decided last week to stand behind its decision allowing the pipeline to be built. Now the only thing left to do for archeologists such as von Werlhof is try to make the best of the situation.

The best-case scenario for von Werlhof would be if all the archeological artifacts and fossils moved to make way for the pipeline could be transported and displayed at the IVC Desert Museum. That's not the way the plan reads now.

According to the environmental impact statement published by FERC and the State Lands Commission, University of California, Berkeley, will have the first rights of refusal for any fossils recovered during construction.

Von Werlhof said UC Berkeley already has more fossils than it can catalog and display. He's going to try to get the fossils and other artifacts found in the Imperial Valley displayed somewhere in the Valley.

He's going to have to hurry and get the word to supervisors at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation before construction starts and hope they heed his call.

Don't count him out.

Von Werlhof, nearly 80, said he feels rejuvenated every time he visits the Halchidoma's sacred grounds near Palo Verde Point.

On Thursday, the day he drove to the grounds, he said, "I've had some minor surgery, I haven't been feeling good but today I feel great."

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or

>> Creation story of the Yuman tribes — As told by Jay von Werlhof, Imperial Valley College Desert Museum director. Transcribed by Staff Writer Aaron Claverie.

Kukumat and Blind Old Man arose from the waters long ago to create all things on earth.

The waters subsided.

Kukumat was the principal creator. He created animals, spirit beings and people as they are today.

Blind Old Man, Kukumat's evil twin, created monstrous creatures.

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