For reasons still not altogether clear, the ancient inhabitants of Utah left their mysterious mark - tens of thousands of them, actually - on the canyon walls and rock boulders of Utah.

Some are pecked or etched into smooth rock faces; others are boldly painted in a rainbow of colors. In all, it's a legacy of petroglyphs and pictographs so rich the National Geographic Society once labeled Utah the "Louvre" of rock art.But that heritage is being lost, not just to the combined effectsof wind and rain, but to the heavy hand of man.

"We are looking at ways to preserve and still promote public awareness of Utah rock art," said assistant state archaeologist Kevin Jones. "We recognize there is a lot of interest in rock art.

"And yes, vandalism continues to be a serious problem. But more so, people are so sincerely interested in rock art they are often loving these sites to death. We are looking at ways to bring people to a site and still minimize damage to the site, how to get people to stop chalking the sites or taking rubbings of the rock art or sitting kids on them for photos."

The "we" in this case is the Interagency Cultural Task Force, composed of archaeologists from the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the state. All share a concern over the tremendous amount of Utah rock art being irretrievably lost through vandalism, theft and human-induced erosion.

But a new process involving the creation of exact, even life-size, reproductions of threatened panels has caught the collective eye of Utah archaeologists.

"We are looking at different options, but this one seems to hold a tremendous potential for public education and preservation," Jones said.

The reproductions are the brainchild of Ron Kierstead, owner of Current Creations in West Jordan. His year-old business began as a way to incorporate rock art reproductions into Southwestern furniture and wall hangings. It's a non-destructive process involving the transfer of rock art photographs to stencils to red sandstone via sandblasting.

Kierstead is in the business to make money. But archaeologists see his reproductions in a whole new light. The reproductions are so exact they can actually provide a permanent record of rock art that can be displayed in museums, schools and even at the rock art sites themselves.

"It's better to have people take their rubbings off a reproduction than the original," Kierstead said.

The BLM is excited enough about the concept that it has committed $5,000 to reproduce historic and prehistoric inscriptions that are immediately threatened with destruction.

"We have a big push in Grand Gulch (in southeastern Utah) to save the historic signatures" of the first Anglo expeditions into the Anasazi ruins, said Craig Harmon, head archaeologists for the BLM.

"The idea is to do reproductions of historic signatures and put them on display in different places, including the sites. People are taking rubbings anyway, so if we can get them to take those rubbings from copies rather than originals we can provide for a hands-on experience without destructive activities to the originals."

Jones adds that seeing exact replicas of rock art in a museum also enhances the education and preservation goals of the task force. "His (Kierstead's) reproductions are so clean and crisp, it has a more visual effect than seeing a picture or a painting. It brings it closer to reality," he said.

And the reproductions can be incorporated into portable teaching kits to educate Utah school children about proper site ethics. The reproductions make it possible for children to touch and thereby feel an appreciation for something etched into stone.

Another advantage to the reproductions is that by offering people the option to purchase exact copies, it may deter the increasing problem of theft of rock art panels. "If it's available to buy, maybe these people won't go out in the hills and steal the real thing," Kierstead said.

Yet another advantage, Harmon said, is that Kierstead's reproductions come without the modern graffiti, offering a clearer picture of what the original panel looked like "without the John loves Mary" spray-painted over the top.

"There are other alternatives around, like removing the graffiti. But that process is tremendously destructive (to the original rock art)," Harmon said. "This seems to be a better, non-destructive alternative. It not only shows people what the panel looked like before the graffiti, but it demonstrates how tragic the vandalism really is."

There is currently disagreement as to whether Kierstead's reproductions should be placed at endangered sites along with instructions to take rubbings from the reproduction instead of the original. Some argue that would just encourage some people to take rubbings from the original.

Jones emphasizes the task force is looking at all options to protect Utah rock art panels, including fencing them, building walkways, erecting more signs and stressing more site ethics.

"There are a lot of proposals floating around," Harmon added, "but this seems to offer the most educational potential of any I've seen so far."