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Imagine for a moment running power lines through a cathedral. That's how archeologists describe what the Bonneville Power Administration is proposing to do 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 some ancient paintings. The site is considered sacred by Native Americans.
The Northwest News Network's Colin Fogarty has the story.
COLIN FOGARTY, BYLINE: Mike Taylor scrambles up a rocky hillside. A stark cliff looms above us. That's where we're headed, because if you look carefully...
MIKE TAYLOR: You can start to see that notch and that crack there. We're going to kind of go sideways through it.
FOGARTY: Inside is a tall cave. Giant boulders are wedged above. And on one wall there are four human-like figures, painted in red, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. And that's not all.
TAYLOR: There's actually a very complex picture on this wall. You can see little elements of it over here in a different color.
FOGARTY: Taylor is an amateur archeologist 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.
TAYLOR: In the rest of the world, a lot of people know about the painted caves in France and Spain, which were painted 15 to 30 thousand years ago. To us here, this is about as close as we get from an archeological perspective to anything like that.
FOGARTY: But this site lies along the path of transmission lines carrying electricity from vast wind turbine farms upriver to the Western electrical grid. The Bonneville Power Administration proposes to build a new 243-foot tower near here to carry even more cables across the Columbia River.
But not if Robert Zornes has anything to do with it. He's the owner of this property.
ROBERT ZORNES: If we can stop Bonneville, it will send a message that these cultural sites are worth protecting.
FOGARTY: 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 archeologists from the Yakama Nation to study the cave. They ended up filing a range of objections. They're 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.
DOUG JOHNSON: 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.
FOGARTY: 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 1700-mile route.
Allyson Brooks is the State of Washington's chief preservationist.
ALLYSON BROOKS: It's the ongoing problem of trying to push through these energy projects quickly, at the same time protecting cultural and natural resources.
FOGARTY: 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 that construction on the new transmission line can resume this fall.
For NPR News, I'm Colin Fogarty.