Western land use issues are complex, and those who care about the land need to be informed. Sometimes that takes hours of background research and, other times, nothing less than a personal visit to the area in question. In that spirit, I visited Bears Ears National Monument in October as I traveled from Washington State to New Mexico. My goals: to understand why this 1.9 million acre tract was important enough to preserve under the Antiquities Act and what fuels the desire by this administration to reduce the monument size. The visit was exactly what I hoped for and left me ready to make some conclusions about Bears Ears, some of them surprising to me. However, I am getting ahead of myself. Before the conclusions, I want to share the basic facts for others who want to dig deeper into the Bears Ears controversy. Here ya go!
The Bears Ears story begins with the Antiquities Act. In 1906, Congress gave U.S. Presidents the power to declare certain government land a National Monument. The intention was to protect and preserve prehistoric, Native American sites in our country, hence the name, Antiquities Act. National Monuments include petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, and other village structures that have cultural and spiritual significance to Native Americans, not to mention the rich archaeological value. My hero, President Teddy Roosevelt, the father of the National Park system, designated the first monument – Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Other classic national monuments that fulfill the original mission of the antiquities Act:
- Aztec Ruins in NM (1923)
- Canyon of the Ancients, AZ (2000)
- Hovenweep, CO (1923)
In the 100+ years after the birth of the Antiquities Act, the scope of our National Monuments expanded to include historically significant military and American heritage sites:
- Fort Matanzas, FL (1924)
- Fort McHenry, Maryland (1925)
- Fort Sumter, SC (1948)
- Military Working Dog Teams, TX (2013)
- Statue of Liberty (1924)
More recently, heroes of the social justice movements are honored in National Monuments:
- Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad (2013)
- Cesar Chavez, CA (2012)
- Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, NY to commemorate the LGBT struggle for justice (2016)
What I Saw
Before I arrived, I expected the monument to be like Devil’s Tower in Wyoming: a small area surrounding a standout rock formation, ready-made for tourists. You don’t even need to get out of the car to see it. Like Devil’s Tower, Bear’s Ears would be a quick and dirty, in and out check mark on the bucket list. Not so. The twin buttes call Bear’s Ears are but a small piece of the monument. It includes nearly 1.5 million acres of land and perhaps 100,00 archeological sites. Many sites can be explored via several access points on US 191. Some
- Butler Wash Ruins Overlook
- House on Fire Archeology Hike
- Mule Canyon Roadside Kiva
- Newspaper Rock Petroglyph Panel
- Valley of the Gods
Bears Ears National Monument is in the Southeast Utah red rock country. The land is situated on the Colorado Plateau, a large area that spreads into Utah, AZ, CO, and NM. The Colorado Plateau sits between the Colorado Rockies and the Utah Rockies, and research shows that this area was inhabited at least 12,000 years ago. The geologic and cultural beauty is so magnificent, the Plateau houses 10 National Parks and many more monuments and historic sites. People come here from all over the world to visit all the Parks, often driving the Grand Circle, a series of routes that lead through the Utah parks and even into Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. I have stayed away from the people madness but am now totally smitten with the Colorado Plateau and the October color that contrasts perfectly with the red rocks and deep green pinyon-juniper landscape. I hope to spend the rest of my life exploring the region during this off-season, perhaps an annual stop as I travel to my wintering spot!
Who lives around Bears Ears?
The closest towns: Blanding and Bluff Utah. Blanding (pop 3,400), lies on US 191 and calls itself the Base Camp to Adventure. That is not an overstatement, considering that to the north, a traveller can access Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park and the west, Capitol Reef National Park , several Utah state parks and numerous monuments. To the east, into Colorado, Mesa Verde and more monuments. To the south, Escalante Grand Staircase, Lake Powell Dam area, Four Corners and access to the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. Bluff (pop 320) also lies on US 191 and sits on the southern edge of the Monument. The town’s motto is “Bears Ears Starts Here”. The population in Blanding and Bluff is a mix of Native Americans and Mormon Settlers. Also nearby, between the two small towns, is White Mesa Ute Reservation (pop 350), where over 50% still speak the indigenous language (U.S. Census). The people on the reservation, who are also connected to the Ute ethnic groups in Colorado, were once hunter-gatherers who lost the surrounding land to the settlers and were forced to farm on inadequate land (“A History of San Juan County”, Robert McPherson).
Tourism feeds the area, as it does throughout Utah. However, not all tourists follow the “leave no trace” guidelines. Treasure hunters looking for artifacts and clay pottery have looted the Bear’s Ears area for decades. In the spring and summer of 2016, there were six confirmed thefts from Bear’s Ears. According to The Washington Post, “ In one case, someone erased an ancient carving from a rock face using an electric saw. In another, someone dug up a centuries-old ceremonial chamber that had been previously left pristine.” This sad fact was one of Obama’s motivations for setting aside Bear’s Ears National Monument. Indeed, the Antiquities Act preserves sites like
Also important to the ongoing story of Bears Ears – uranium mining. At one time (20th century) the U.S. was the largest uranium producers. The Colorado Plateau, including the White Mesa Uranium Mill which accepts uranium waste from other mills, employs workers from Blanding, Bluff and the reservation. Two recent spills near White Mesa have alarmed residents about their health and drinking water. I actually saw a billboard offering medical care for uranium poisoning
Some of the controversial points about Bear’s Ears National Monument should be emerging: tourism, mining, vandalism. Of course, greed is a factor as well, which will be explained in the next Installment, Bear’s Ears: How it Came to Be a Monument.
Have you been to Bear’s Ears or other monuments on Zinke’s hit list? Please share your story (firstname.lastname@example.org)