ALBUQUERQUE — The nation's newest national monument occupies the least likely of sites--7,300 acres of rock, grass and desert sagebrush along the blackened edge of an ancient lava flow bordered by sprawling housing developments.
But it was here that the ancestors of modern-day Pueblo Indians etched more than 15,000 petroglyphs into huge basalt boulders, creating a vast gallery of sacred images that one expert has described as "an outdoor church."
The Petroglyph National Monument was created with the stroke of a pen on June 27, when President Bush signed legislation authorizing it, but it may be a decade before the petroglyphs are fully protected from real estate development, vandals and trash dumpers.
"Even though President Bush signed that bill, it hasn't changed anything on the ground," said Ike Eastvold, president of the Friends of the Albuquerque Petroglyphs.
As expressions of the ancient rock carvers' beliefs about the origin of the world, the petroglyphs include depictions of ceremonial masks, shields and helmets, drawings of spirit figures such as horned serpents and kachinas, and stylized renderings of sacred animals, such as mountain lions and birds, Eastvold said.
The 17-mile-long monument includes five extinct volcanoes and the adjoining lava flow on Albuquerque's West Mesa, an area long earmarked for future development because the city is bounded by mountains to the east and Indian pueblos on the north and south.
Between 300 and 400 property owners hold tracts within the monument, with property values ranging up to $40,000 an acre. For now, only a city moratorium on the issuance of building permits prevents further development, Eastvold said.
Even after the monument is up and running, urban growth is sure to leave it an island in a sea of development.
The city wants to expand a small airport just west of the volcanoes to accommodate a jetliner maintenance facility, while traffic engineers are pushing to cut roads through the monument to link the city with future suburbs.
The bill creating the monument calls for an unusual collaboration between the federal, state and city governments in buying and managing the land, Eastvold said.
The federal government will pay $58 million to acquire a large tract owned by the heirs to an old Spanish land grant. The city will spend $14 million to buy land in another area of the monument, while the state will kick in $6 million.
The city and the federal government each will manage their own portions of the monument, although all management will follow National Park Service standards.
"There'll be a lot of people throughout the country looking at this to see whether this will work," said Rex Funk, director of Albuquerque's Open Space Division. A slowdown in Albuquerque's real estate industry is making it easier to buy land, he said.
"It's kind of a window of opportunity now in terms of land acquisition," he said.
Monument project manager Diane Souder says the park service will develop long-range management and protection plans for the petroglyphs over the next few years. Land acquisition, already begun by the city, could take a decade to complete, although a visitors' center and other facilities should be completed well before then, she said.
"You don't expect to acquire a national monument overnight," she said.
Even if the threat of development recedes, the petroglyphs will still be vulnerable to deliberate destruction.
On a visit to Piedras Marcadas Canyon, a city-owned section of the monument, Eastvold showed members of a Smithsonian Institution tour group where contractors had dumped hundreds of tons of construction materials while building neighboring subdivisions.
He pointed out bullet-pocked rock surfaces where marksmen had used petroglyphs for target practice.
A few of the monument's petroglyphs are from the Desert Archaic period, 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, while others can be traced to the Spanish colonial era, but most are from the Pueblo IV period of the Rio Grande style of rock art, dating from 1320 to 1680, according to Eastvold, who inventoried the symbols for a state research project.
Many petroglyphs were probably carved by people living in a 1,100-room pueblo along the Rio Grande, a mile to the east, he said. The ruins of that pueblo are also included in the monument.
Many rock images are recognizable to modern-day Indians, and a few sites within the monument are still used for religious ceremonies by people living in nearby pueblos, Eastvold said.
"It is still an outdoor church to the Pueblo people," Eastvold said. "This is still a spiritually active landscape."