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Saving Picture Canyon

For much of the last several decades, Picture Canyon in Flagstaff was known more for its trash than its petroglyphes. Next week, the State Department of Land will hold a public hearing on a bid to conserve the canyon. The hearing is just the latest step in a long effort to restore and protect the area.

Despite its name, the entrance to Picture Canyon is hardly picturesque. To get there, you drive past the Home Depot on Flagstaff’s east side and on to a dirt road. Park your car between the sewage treatment plant and a natural gas pumping station, and then start walking into the Ponderosa Pine forest beyond.

The snow crunching under foot takes Don Weaver back to the late 1970’s. That’s when he first started documenting the petroglyphs amidst the rocks and ponderosa pines of Picture Canyon. At the time, Weaver was an archeologist with the Museum of Northern Arizona, and he says winter was the only time he dared come here.

“Because the smell wasn’t so bad,” Weaver said. “I mean even in the wintertime it was still pretty bad. In the summer time, it would knock you over. It was pretty astounding.”

Back then, the city’s sewage treatment plant just south of here pumped foul smelling effluent into a ditch that ran along the Rio de Flag and through the steep canyon.

But it didn’t just smell bad. Locals used the canyon as dump for oil drums, refrigerators, and even old cars.
“They were right over there,” Weaver said, pointing to a plunge pool at the base of the canyon’s waterfall. “They just came and pushed them off a cliff and they were down in the water”

Still, Weaver knew the value of this place. It’s the first archeological site Harold and Mary Colton worked on in the west. It’s convinced them to move to Flagstaff and start the Museum of Northern Arizona in 1928. They used the rock drawings they found here as the basis for identifying the pre-historic people they called “Sinagua.”  

“At the time when the Coltons were doing this,” Weaver said, “there were really only two prehistoric cultures that were designated in the Southwest. And those were the Anazasi, and the Mogollon, so the designation of the Sinagua culture was adding a new culture here in the Southwest.”

The canyon is one of the most important collections of prehistoric rock art in Northern Arizona. It’s also one of the only natural tanks, or year-round sources of water, in the area. So it’s a lifeline for elk, migrating birds, and other wildlife. Despite all that, it had largely been abandoned since the Colton’s time. To make matters worse, many of the their photographs had been lost, so Weaver braved the stench and began documenting what he found.

“There’s a very nice panel here,” Weaver said, pointing to a nearby petroglyph. “You got a sun symbol down here. This thing here looks like it might be a water bird.”

The drawings are believed to the remnants of Flagstaff’s first inhabitants. Most date back around 1,000 years. Some are thousands of years older.

Weaver says there’ve been three or four attempts to save Picture Canyon over the years. The latest looks like it might just succeed.

The effort took off in 2005. That’s when David McKee, a curious employee from the sewage treatment plant, took a run through the canyon. He got inspired and organized a volunteer “Make a Difference Day”.

“It was 72 people and one alpaca,” McKee said, “I have to mention the alpaca because the alpaca literally pulled an engine block out of the canyon. The owners from Doney Park rigged it up to rope and that Alpaca pulled an engine block out.”

The volunteers filled a 40-foot-long dumpster. Workers from the sewage treatment center and nearby El Paso Natural Gas pumping station used cranes to pull up seven cars and 22 tons of concrete. The volunteer effort grew into something called the Picture Canyon Core Group.

Trash gone, they got to work restoring the canyon’s environment.

Today, McKee points out the deepwater wetlands, and the native plants where noxious weeds once flourished.

“This is a coyote willow,” McKee said, pointing to a shrub below, “and these stems were cut from other parts of the Rio de Flag. All this is growth in the last year.”

The Rio de Flag has been restored to its natural meander. And the City of Flagstaff has dramatically improved the quality of water the treatment plant releases. And in 2008, Weaver and other archeologists successfully lobbied to have Picture Canyon added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Supporters fear all the improvements have made the area more attractive to developers. Steve Drumright sits on Flagstaff’s Open Space Committee.

“As Flagstaff grows and we run out of land, people are going to want to build out there because it’s flat ground,” Drumright said. “You essentially will have a small river running through your property, so that will make it very desirable.”

The canyon and surrounding Ponderosa Pine Forest belong to the State Land Department. By law, they have to sell it to the highest bidder to raise money for Arizona’s universities.

Flagstaff hopes to buy Picture Canyon with the 3 million dollars remaining in Flagstaff’s open space fund, along with a matching state grant. It’s the last step towards permanently protecting the area.

The plan is to turn the land into a conservation park and connect it with the city’s urban trail system.

If things go as planned, the city could own the land by the end of this year.