A Monumental Divide
The glow from the Milky Way illuminates Owachomo Bridge, believed to the be the oldest of three natural bridges in Natural Bridges Monument. Photo by Rod Hanna
Even before the Egyptians built the Pyramids, indigenous people of North America were using the Bears Ears, twin buttes that tower timelessly over the southeast Utah landscape, for way nding. Today, more than 100,000 artifacts accumulated over millennia hide within the rugged canyon walls and piñon-juniper tables surrounding the Bears Ears. Archaeologists say this rugged corner of the Colorado Plateau represents one of the richest unprotected troves of cultural antiquity on federal public lands in America.
More than one million acres of land surrounding the Bears Ears earned protected status when outgoing President Barack Obama signed an order designating it as the country’s newest national monument in his last days in office. That decision, thought by many to be irrevocable, is now being contested by President Donald Trump, who ordered Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke to review 26 national monuments in an attempt to find a means to reverse those designations.
“Bears Ears is part of the history of all the native peoples in this region. It’s like a book for us, and when many tribes have a chapter in this book, it tells us a lot about why we are the way we are. But it’s also part of the history of the people of the United States and the world,” says Jim Enote of the Zuni Pueblo.
“I believe that tribal peoples of this region shouldn’t be the only ones to take responsibility for protecting the cultural resources; they belong to everyone, and everyone should take responsibility for protecting them.”
Not everyone shares his view. “Native Americans are fully aware of our living history and ties to the lands we’ve managed for eons. We will not be made to believe that a national monument is the only way to preserve our cultural heritage,” says Ryan Benally, vice chairman of the Stewards of San Juan County and a lifelong Native American resident of San Juan County.
Long proclaiming to be the original conservationists, ranchers, too, know the landscape intimately and resent intrusion from the Washington, D.C. establishment, many of whom have never set foot in the interior of the West.
“Outsiders threaten to make this place a playground and a spectator site for travelers. We locals are ghting to protect the sacred nature of this place, the stillness and purity of the landscape, the all-American values of family outings, hard work and respect for those who are raised to protect what is precious and keep it safe as a whole,” says Evangelyn Clark Woodman, a San Juan County resident.
Most of the land was federal before it was made a monument. Locals fear a similar fate will befall Bears Ears as happened when Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Garfield and Kane counties was designated. “President Bill Clinton’s proclamation promised residents that grazing will continue. Nearly 20 years later, the number of animals grazing there has declined by almost a third. Ranchers say the Bureau of Land Management has revoked permits and closed much-needed rangeland. Those who are left in the area face an uphill battle. They can’t extend or move water lines within their allotments, fence riparian areas, maintain roads, or take other necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of their livestock. This is slowly pushing cattle off the range and ranchers on the land their families have worked for generations,” says Matthew Anderson, policy analyst for the Sutherland Institute, which is working on the government’s behalf to overturn the designation.
Environmentalists see a duty to protect this land. “Bears Ears National Monument has been a rallying cry for tens of thousands of people across America, with the Bears
Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition leading the way,” conservationist, author and activist Terry Tempest Williams (“The Hour of Land”) says from her home in nearby Castle Valley, Utah. “It is a landscape of the imagination, where red rock canyons not only hold the kivas and cliff dwellings of the Ancient Ones, but continue to house their spirits. It is the only place where I have seen a rainbow at night.”
“When Bruce Adams, a current county commissioner of San Juan County, arrives to meet Zinke in Blanding with an entourage wearing white cowboy hats that say ‘Make San Juan County Great Again,’ but Navajo leader Willie Grayeyes of Utah Dine Bikeyah is stopped by a highway patrolman from entering the meeting where Zinke is meeting with ’locals,’ you know the so-called review process is hardly one of fair and open-mindedness,” she says. Oil and gas companies also have their eye on the mineral-rich lands of southern Utah. The Utah legislature recently passed a bill calling for an energy zone that covers much of the Bears Ears. In the same session, another draft resolution declared that the “highest and best use” of the area was energy development. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has stated that the current administration’s move to review the Bears Ears’ designation is a thinly disguised effort to open the land to energy exploitation.
“The idea that opposition to the monument centers on oil and gas is a false narrative. There are a number of federal laws that protect archaeological and cultural resources from destruction on federal lands,” Anderson says.
“The fact is; there is no oil and gas no matter what the other side tries to propagate. They are not resources that exist in high quality, or quantity, so there is no incentive to sell it o . If people don’t believe that, they can look up the official Bureau of Land Management reports about oil and gas development for themselves. The last well that was drilled on Cedar Mesa was four years ago and it came up dry. The uranium boom happened more than 50 years ago, but you would never be able to tell when you look at the area. If the current condition of the area, (based on the stewardship of the locals) isn’t evidence enough that the decision should be rescinded, nothing will be,” says Jami Bayles, president of Stewards of San Juan County.
The unprecedented action by Trump attracted a national outcry. Williams was joined in her indignation by native leaders, and hundreds of people who swarmed the Utah state capital in protest. Actor Robert Redford and Patagonia clothing company founder Yvon Chouinard vowed to ght any attempt by Trump to undo national monuments in court.
In early 2017, Patagonia, Black Diamond and other international companies led the charge to withdraw the Outdoor Retailer Show from Salt Lake City, Utah – an event that pumped millions of dollars into the local economy. “Outdoor Retailer is the most important tradeshow we exhibit at for Big Agnes, Helinox and Honey Stinger. We support the move to a new city and hope it’s Denver for many reasons, both political and logistical,” says Bill Gamber, co-founder and president of Steamboat Springs-based Big Agnes and Honey Stinger.
For Steamboat outdoor enthusiasts, southern Utah is mecca. Rich in climbing, hiking, biking and camping opportunities, the joke among locals is that during spring break, nearby Moab could be renamed “Steamboat West.” “The Bears Ears National
Monument area is one of my favorite places on the Colorado Plateau. It is so rich and vast in Ancient Puebloan ruins and rock art, rugged landscapes, and incredible vistas, it is a photographic gold mine,” says renowned landscape photographer Rod Hanna.
Bears Ears and other national monuments were designated as such under the Antiquities Act of 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt was the rst promoter of the Antiquities Act more than a century ago when he struggled for cooperation from lawmakers on Capitol Hill to protect places in danger of destruction. The legacy started by Roosevelt has resulted in the creation of 129 national monuments in the U.S. – the vast majority in the West. Grand Canyon in Arizona and Grand Teton in Wyoming were first safeguarded as national monuments. Colorado is home to eight of them.
During his tenure, Obama created or expanded 34 national monu- ments, the most of any president. Sixteen Democrat and Republican presidents had designated monuments; only Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did not.
As Steamboat Magazine went to press, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke released an interim report calling for drastic reductions in the size of Bears Ears National Monument, as well as a review of 25 other national monuments, including Canyon of the Ancients in Colorado.