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Imagine running power lines through a cathedral. That's how archaeologists describe what the Bonneville Power Administration proposes doing in the Columbia River Gorge in Washington state. The federal electricity provider is trying to string a new transmission line near a cave that contains ancient paintings, a site considered sacred by Native Americans.
The paintings are inside a tall cave on a rocky hillside in Wishram, Wash. Four humanlike figures were painted in red hundreds or even thousands of years ago. And that's not all.
"There's actually a very complex picture on this wall. You can see little elements of it over here in a different color," says Mike Taylor, an amateur archaeologist who helped write a book on Columbia River rock art. He says for generations, Northwest tribes have used this place for vision quests and other spiritual ceremonies. They still do. In fact, it's so sensitive, the nearby Yakama Nation declined to speak on tape about this cave. Taylor says it's rare to find one still intact.
"In the rest of the world, a lot of people know about the painted caves in France and Spain, which were painted 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. To us here, this is about as close as we get from an archaeological perspective to anything like that," he says.
The site lies along the path of transmission lines carrying electricity from vast wind turbine farms upriver to the Western electrical grid. The BPA proposes building a new 243-foot tower near here to carry even more cables across the Columbia River.
But not if Robert Zornes, the owner of the property, has anything to do with it.
"If we can stop Bonneville, it will send a message that these cultural sites are worth protecting," Zornes says.
Zornes is playing David to the BPA's Goliath. The agency has already done studies, gathered comments and begun construction elsewhere along the planned line. But progress stalled after Zornes invited archaeologists from the Yakama Nation to study the cave. They ended up filing a range of objections, and they are currently negotiating ways to protect not just the cave but the wider historical landscape. BPA spokesman Doug Johnson says his agency is committed to preserving culturally sensitive spots for tribes.
"And we're going to work through the issues that they have and then make sure that they're consistent with our goal to bolster our transmission system and do it. But we want to make sure we do it right," Johnson says.
Similar controversies have sprung up elsewhere. Last spring in the Mojave Desert, the discovery of ancient remains delayed a big solar energy development. And many tribes have been wary of the proposed Keystone pipeline out of concern it would disrupt cultural sites along its 1,700-mile route.
"It's the ongoing problem of trying to push through these energy projects quickly, at the same time protecting these cultural and natural resources," says Allyson Brooks, the state of Washington's chief preservationist.
The latest dispute over the BPA power project is whether the site where the tower would go is eligible as an official Lewis and Clark landmark. The explorers came through here in 1805. The BPA hopes to settle that and other conflicts soon so construction on the new transmission line can resume this fall.