The U.S. Forest Service Site Steward Program

©2001 by Joy Greenberg

Just as the natural world continues to evolve, the Forest Service, long a beleaguered bureaucratic whipping boy, is demonstrating that it, too, is capable of change as well, with innovative projects such as its Partners in Preservation Program. Partly a reaction to the need by the USFS to address the factioned sections of the public that use its lands, and partly a result of the relatively recent hiring of archaeologists to study and document the cultural artifacts that exist in National Forests, Partners in Preservation is a joint effort between Forest Service employees and volunteers to protect the cultural heritage of public lands.

Site Stewards in Training
photo ©2000 by Joy Greenberg

The idea of partnering with the public is somewhat novel for the Forest Service. Although it has utilized volunteers in the past, it is better known for some of its more unpopular programs like the Adventure Pass which charges a fee to those who wish to drive the National Forests. So, in addition to being culturally advantageous, Partners in Preservation is helping to change the stereotyped image of an unresponsive, uncaring governmental agency.

Partners in Preservation also marks a giant step forward for the Forest Service in its movement towards regarding natural resources less as a renewable crop and more as a commodity whose value is intrinsically related to its essence, which is non-renewable. Once an historical artifact is destroyed, it can never be replaced, its value as a research, aesthetic, and instructional source gone forever, much like an extinct species. The purpose of Partners in Preservation is to train public volunteers to monitor existing sites in the National Forests and report signs of degradation from human, animal and weather abuse so that steps can be taken to preserve them.

Using Arizona's Site Steward Program as a model, Los Padres National Forest Archaeologists Janine McFarland and Stephen Horne created Partners in Preservation: The Site Steward Program, when funding became available in 1992 through America's Great Outdoors, a former President Bush administration program for outdoor recreation initiatives. Since then it has grown in numbers and diversity with about 300 volunteer site stewards in six California counties. As volunteer participation grows, so does the Heritage Resource operating budget, allowing more funds to be allocated to site protection.

Since most of the 100-plus sites and structures that are the focus of Partners in Preservation volunteers are of Native American origin, the task has primarily become one of documenting the status of rock art and accompanying middens, essentially the trash heaps of native cultures like the California Central Coastal Valley-dwelling Salinan Nation. On a recent autumn Saturday, archaeologists McFarland and Horne led a group of Site Steward Trainees through the field work part of their training at Wagon Caves, a large granite outcropping situated atop cliffs overlooking a scenic part of the San Antonio River.

more Site Stewards
photo ©2000 by Joy Greenberg

Because it's easily accessible, the rock art and middens at Wagon Caves have endured much degradation since being the site of Salinan Nation occupation centuries ago. Graffiti, smoke damage, and pitting from projectiles such as shot blasts are in evidence in several places throughout the site. The Site Steward Trainees were shown how to monitor this site in the future, from collecting visitor register information to recording the impact of human and sometimes animal (cows have been known to trample the middens) presence.

McFarland and Horne were originally motivated by the need for active preservation when they began monitoring another LPNF site, Pool Rock and Condor Cave. It was at these sites that we first learned that we had a significant problem with visitor use impacts at remote sites. The middens had been trampled to dust, mobilized dust was adhering to rock art surfaces, vegetation was deteriorating, and thousands of feet had worn erosion channels, they say. They took immediate action to implement a site stabilization program which involved site stewards constructing structures to aid the administrative closure of the area, a last resort but sometimes necessary to prevent total and permanent loss.

Closure of a sensitive site until it is stabilized, or no longer rapidly deteriorating, is not uncommon at public sites. Painted Cave, a Chumash rock art site on Carrizo Plain Bureau of Land Management land was closed for several years until a parking lot and trail could be constructed to prevent vehicles from driving too closely. But, closure requires enforcement, which, of course, costs money. This is why involving volunteers has become a focus of Partners in Preservation. The more volunteer hours contributed, the higher the operating budget, the more funding for preservation needs.

Prior to the field part of the Site Steward training, many of the group had assembled at a workshop last May and been treated to a day of preparatory information from McFarland and Horne. Held at the Salinan Nation Cultural Center near King City, a fitting location given that it is Native Americans who have created the rock art, the archaeologists led a crash course in the legal, archaeological and historical background for preservation of rock art sites.

VWA member Paul Danielson co-sponsored both the workshop and field training events and by promoting them online to the membership was able attract a sizable VWA representation.

Partners in Preservation is driven by needs of the resource, McFarland and Horne say. "Each site is recorded and assessed for risk of natural deterioration and vandalism. A great deal of thought and experimentation has gone into the organization and mechanics of Partners in Preservation. Our goal was to build a program that is sustainable, simple, secure, and safe." Judging by the growing popularity of the program that is resulting in a demonstrable slow-down of site degradation, their efforts are succeeding.


VWA members wishing to take part in theVWA Heritage Resource Site Stewardship Program should contact Dennis Palm, VWA Board Member/Site Stewardship Program Coordinator at

Partners in Preservation may be contacted by writing to:

Los Padres National Forest
Heritage Resources Program
Santa Barbara Ranger District
3505 Paradise Road
Santa Barbara, CA 93105

The Salinan Nation may be contacted by writing:

Joe Freeman, President
Salinan Nation Cultural Preservation Association
King City, CA

JOY GREENBERG is a Site Steward and Ventana Wilderness Alliance member.