Wednesday, July 11, 2012

U. S. Forest Service employees vandalize Native American town site

Employees of the United States Forest Service recently cut down over a hundred trees within a large archaeological zone to block a trail, long utilized by hikers to view an ancient volcanic vent hole and the massive Native American town site. This was apparently the agency’s "knee jerk" response to a nationally televised program on the Travel Channel, which praised the beauty and cultural significance of Track Rock Gap in Georgia.

Upon entering the offices of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in this booming city north of Atlanta, a visitor will soon see the motto of the United State Forest Service proudly displayed on a wall: “Caring for the Land and Serving People." The employees of this office are the stewards over 866,468 acres of federally owned land in Georgia. The agency is responsible for the maintenance and protection of several hundred archaeological and historical sites.

On Saturday morning, July 7, 2012 a group of outdoor enthusiasts from around the United States that included a Los Angeles movie producer and journalists, were shocked to discover that US Forest Service personnel had recently cut down over 100 live trees in order to block the public from hiking on a trail leading to a dormant volcanic vent and large complex of stone ruins in Track Rock Gap. No alternative route was provided. The sounds of chain saws would have easily been heard from a nearby arterial road that is regularly patrolled by both Sheriff’s deputies and USFS law enforcement officers. Track Rock Gap is about 40 miles north of Gainesville and 76 miles north of Downtown Atlanta.

Your tax money paid to do this.  Had the vandalism been done by private citizens, they would be facing huge fines and prison terms.

Your tax money paid to do this. Had the vandalism been done by private citizens, they would be facing huge fines and prison terms.
Photo credit: 
Richard Thornton

The group was soon forced to go off trail to continue their tour, but thoroughly documented the damage done by federal employees, with both digital and video cameras. They also found that the USFS had allowed many new tree saplings to grow in the plazas and 300+ stone ruins, possibly causing permanent damage to archaeological artifacts beneath the surface.

The intentionally blocked path is now called the Vent Trail. It is probably at least 1,200 years old and varies between 14 and 6 feet in width. The trail climbs about 800 feet up to an ancient volcanic vent hole (fumarole) that Native Americans considered sacred. The trail was a branch of the 8,000+ year old trade route, known as the Great White Path that interconnected the Smoky Mountains with the Etowah River in northwest Georgia. It terminates at Etowah Mounds National Historic Landmark.

The Vent Trail is in good condition, except for the recent damage and negligence caused by USFS employees. In use long before the arrival of Europeans, a trickle of nature-lovers, Native Americans and archaeology enthusiasts have enjoyed hiking the rugged, steep terrain through the past 175 years. Hiking its full length requires persons to be in good physical shape.

As the hikers approached the stone walled terraces, the number of trees cut down by USFS employees became so dense that it was impossible to go under or around them. The hikers then turned up the steep slopes of the archaeological zone. The group immediately encountered stone walls and cairns. Some of the retaining walls are over 300 feet long. The ruins of buildings, ceremonial cairns and altars are located in the upper half of the half mile square archaeological zone.

At the top of the archaeological zone are the ruins of the acropolis, where the largest and most interesting structures are located. However, the soil is so fertile here that vines and saplings make passage almost impossible in the warm months. No trees had been cut down in this area to block the trail. However, the hikers could go no further because a dense stand of fast-growing tree saplings had filled the large plaza in the acropolis. In early March, when the Travel Channel filmed its program, the plaza area had been completely devoid of vegetation except the dead fronds of ferns.

The hikers became disoriented because the jungle-like vegetation in the acropolis blocked out the sun and views of mountain landmarks. When they pulled out their compasses to get bearings, there were almost simultaneous exclamations of disbelief. The compass needles were oscillating about 35 degrees every second and a half. When attempting to photograph an oscillating compass needle, they noticed that the camera image had spots on it as the camera had been exposed to radiation.

Compass needles will only oscillate when exposed to alternating electrical currents or pulsating electromagnetic waves. Tom Grode of Los Angeles smiled and explained, “I have seen this before. We are standing on a portal.” In theoretical physics, a time portal is a place where beings or objects may jump between two distinct times or physical locations.

The group headed straight down the mountain when no trail could be found in the dense vegetation of the acropolis.. The hikers eventually found a section of the Vent Trail that was passable and returned to the Track Rock Gap parking lot without incident.

History of Track Rock Gap

Track Rock Gap is show by British and American maps to be within the territory of the Creek Indian Confederacy until 1785. After then it was owned by the Cherokee Nation from 1785 to 1838. Most of the people with Native American ancestry in the surrounding county are Upper Creeks who live near Coosa Bald Mountain or Coosa Creek. Coosa is a Native American word for the Upper Creek Indians. Prior to the American Revolution, colonial maps showed several Native American towns named, Itsate, in the general vicinity of Track Rock Gap. Itsate is what Hitchiti-speaking Creeks, such as the Miccosukee and many Seminoles, called themselves.

The “large town with stone buildings” at Track Rock Gap is mentioned in the last paragraphs of The Migration Legend of the Creek Indians that was published by Albert S. Gatschet in 1884. It was probably sacked by the Kashita Creeks somewhere around 1475 AD - 1585 AD. It is within a few miles of Native American town sites with mounds that the book, Mississippian Period Archaeology of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, classified as being associated with cultures ancestral to the Creek Indians. These include the Swift Creek, Napier, Etowah and Lamar Cultures.

In 2000 and 2001, the USFS hired South African archaeologist, Johannes Loubser, to study the Track Rock Gap Archaeological Zone. Loubser dug test pits under the ruins of two of the 300+ stone structures at the site to obtain radiocarbon dates ranging from c. 1000 AD to c. 1500 AD. In the fill soil of an agricultural terrace Loubser found Native American pottery shards, which he believed to date from around 750 AD to 1600 AD. Loubser’s report did not state who built the agricultural terraces.

The Oklahoma Cherokees are blamed

The U.S. Forest Service has maintained directional signs to the Track Rock Gap Archaeological Zone and a graveled parking lot adjacent to the site for several decades. However, national awareness of the Track Rock Gap Archaeological Zone did not occur until the book, Itsapa, the Itza Mayas in North America, was published on December 21, 2011 to coincide with the beginning of the Maya solar calendar year. News articles around the world brought some visitation from Native Americans and curious archaeologists, but the trail had no hikers on most days during 2012.

Many news articles in the national media asked why the U. S. Forest Service had not adequately maintained or promoted the Track Rock Archaeological Zone after the Johannes Loubser archaeological study proved that it was a major archaeological site. A former USFS employee in the Gainesville office confidentially told the Examiner that the management in the Gainesville and Atlanta offices of the federal agency had "freaked out" when news of Track Rock Gap went national because "they had obviously dropped the ball." She added that in the six months since then, the subject of Track Rock Gap had been "a constant cause of tension and consternation among several administrators." She said that these middle level managers had considered, perhaps attempted, several extreme, illegal measures to discredit articles, books and TV programs that discussed the archaeological site. She added, "What seems to you Native Americans as a straightforward historic preservation issue has become the U.S. Forest Service's Watergate. I really can't tell you more."

In early March, the USFS granted a commercial filming permit to the Travel Channel to film the archaeological zone. Few people in surrounding Union County even knew that filming was taking place. There were no negative incidents. The History Channel also applied for a permit at that time, but planned to film in early April. A photographer and film maker associated with National Geographic Magazine planned to film in the fall of 2012.

In April, when it was the History Channel’s turn to film the first program of a new series called, America’s Secret History, they were shocked to find that their permit had been denied by the Gainesville Office of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Whereas the Travel Channel’s broadcast of Track Rock Gap was a low budget 15 minute segment, the History Channel was investing extensively with background research by archaeologists and historians, plus extensive coverage of Southeastern and Maya archaeological sites. No amount of pleading would budge the USFS from its position. The History Channel is being forced to film other terrace farming sites in the Southeast that have been discovered in 2012, then piece together images and films of Track Rock Gap from a variety of amateur photographic sources.

The Blairsville District Office of the US Forest Service was contacted by the Examiner in late April concerning their refusal to allow the History Channel and National Geographic Magazine to document the Track Rock Gap area. An administrative official requested to not be quoted by name, but said that the decision was made in the Gainesville office of the USFS. He added that Oklahoma Cherokees had informed the USFS that the stone terraces and building ruins at Track Rock Gap were the burial places of many great Cherokee warriors and therefore could not be photographed or filmed. The administrator was asked if opinions of officials at the Seminole Nation, the Muscogee-Creek Nation or the Miccosukee Tribe had been considered in the matter. The administrator didn’t answer the question. Shortly thereafter, it was confirmed that Creek officials had not been consulted by the USFS concerning Track Rock Gap.

Union County, GA, where Track Rock Gap is located, suddenly became a “hot news topic”in May of 2012 when one of its several neo-Nazi groups, a KKK chapter, applied to the Georgia Department of Transportation to sponsor a section of a four lane expressway running through the county. Reporters from around the nation gave the impression in newscasts that Union County was filled with characters out of the movie, Deliverance. In fact, Union County has long been known as a progressive, prosperous county that has one of the last Democratic-run county governments in northern Georgia. In recent years, however, aggressive, often illegal, actions by the Neo-Nazi's have given their groups disproportionate influence in governmental agencies, particularly law enforcement.

Violation of federal laws

Regardless of the political intrigues going on in Union County, GA or in the State of Georgia as a whole, the United States Forestry Service must comply with the laws of the United States. The moment that a USFS employee sawed down a beautiful elm tree to block entrance to the Vent Trail by a Native Americans, he and his superiors were seriously violating federal law. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (Public Law 95-341, 42 U.S.C. 1996 and 1996a) and paragraphs within several other federal codes involving Native American heritage, specifically guarantee the right of all Native Americans to visit Native American sacred sites. Stiff fines and/or jail time is associated with some of these laws.

Officials of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, who ordered the cutting of the trees in a designated archaeological zone, are also in violation of several other Federal laws. One Federal law (18 USC 1361) makes it illegal to steal or damage any property of the federal government and establishes provisions for fines and imprisonment. Violation of this law is a criminal felony. More specifically, timber found on federal land, in turn, is protected by a section of the criminal code labeled 18 U.S.C. §§ 1852-56. These sections prohibit the unlawful cutting, injuring, removing or transporting of timber found on public lands. In the process of sawing down trees within archaeological zone 9UN367, USFS employees careless kicked aside and depressed soils that were known to contain Native American artifacts. A Federal code known as 16 USC 470aa-470mm establishes civil and criminal penalties for the destruction or alteration of cultural resources.

Officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have known that a half square mile Native American archaeological zone was at Track Rock Gap since at least the year 2000. The USFS paid for the archaeological study. Provisions of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act mandate that those federal agencies, which have stewardship of Native American archaeological sites, must do all things possible to protect them from further damage. For 12 years the USFS has knowingly allowed tree roots and parasitic vines to continue destruction of the 1,200 year old stone structures at Track Rock Gap. The Gainesville office of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest has archaeologists on its staff, but they were never directed to study or guide preservation of the Track Rock Gap stone structures.

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to follow specific procedures before altering in any way a designated archaeological zone. In the case of the Track Rock Gap Archaeological Zone the cutting of over a 100 trees and blocking access to the zone would have required public notices, public hearings and consultations with the Muscogee-Creek Nation, the Poarch Creek Tribe, the Florida Seminole Tribe, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, the Eastern Band of Cherokees, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Kituwah Band of Cherokees, plus a published plan for mitigation of negative impact. That was not done.

Personal notes from columnist: I am not able to respond directly to each Facebook comment and have been inundated by emails concerning this article. In regard to the two nasty comments below from the same person presenting himself as an expert on many matters from a college I never heard of . . . there needs to be a response.

(A) I merely reported what was experienced and what one person said, then called the concept of a "portal" to be theoretical physics, which it is. I have no personal explanation for the strange behavior of the compasses. Such things as gravitational vortexes, space portals, time portals and worm holes were taught as unproven theories in my physics classes at Georgia Tech. In the years since then, some of those "off-the-wall" theories have been proven to be facts.

(B) There is absolutely no doubt of a Mesoamerican presence in the Southeast. My tribe, the Creek Indians, speak many Maya and Totonac words and carry Maya DNA. We have a tradition that an advanced people from the south became our elite about 1200 years ago. What we don't understand is why there was a need to build these huge stone terrace complexes at the same time that conventional towns were developing in river bottomlands nearby. That can only be answered by some serious archaeological studies.

The investigation and prosecution of USDA employees is usually handled by their Office of the Inspector General. Honestly, I do not know why an archaeological zone would be a "Watergate" for the USFS. I was not told by my informants. Those wishing to complain about this outrage should contact the following agencies:

U. S. Department of Agriculture: Office of the Inspector General www.USDA/

U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committees

The tribal governments of the Federally recognized Native American tribes listed above.

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