Should We Rethink Bears Ears National Monument?

By Thomas Maness, Cheryl Ramberg-Ford and Allyn C. Ford Dean, College of Forestry

The Bears Ears reach up to elevation of 8,700 feet and are capped with beautiful red Wingate Sandstone.  Two things make the twin buttes special.  First is their distinctive shape: together they look just like the top of a bear’s head.  Second, their altitude, being 2000’ above the surrounding landscape, makes them visible from hundreds of miles around.

The Bear’s Ears, combined with Navaho Mountain, Shiprock, Ute Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks define a region.  If you can see one of them you are in the Four Corners.  If you can see more than one you can figure out where you are and where you are going.  People have been using them as landmarks for thousands of years, as long as there have been people here.  Clovis points have been found there, which are the oldest tools we have definitively identified on the continent.  People, of course, have lived there, emerging from a Sipapu, at the beginning of time. Or perhaps, multiple beginnings of time. Archaeological evidence is everywhere, but of course artifacts are, well, just artifacts.  Riddles, with no real answers.

At various times the Fremont, Hopi, Pueblo, Zuni, Dine, Ute and their ancestors have called this region home.  It is characterized by dry mesas, deep twisting desert canyons, high plateaus, and desert rivers like the Colorado and the San Juan.  Rainfall is scant.  Growing season temperatures are cool at night and blistering hot in the daytime.  Growing food takes a lot of work and smarts.  More smarts than the combined knowledge of the European descendants living on the plateau today.  Unfortunately, much of that knowledge has blown away and scattered like the desert sands.  We could use it today.

The Bear’s Ears contains an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, including art panels, granaries, cliff dwellings, kivas, mesa top structures, check dams, and other features.  Direct evidence shows that the entire landscape was lived on and farmed for thousands of years, pictograph panels date back to earliest inhabitant dates, and we are still finding more evidence as our knowledge and techniques advance.  From the perspective of the American Antiquities Act of 1906, no landscape in this nation could be more deserving of President Obama’s 2016 national monument designation than Bears Ears National Monument.  Arguing against this would be like arguing that Gettysburg doesn’t meet the criteria of a National Military Park.  Places like Bears’ Ears are the very reason the Antiquities Act was enacted.

Currently the area is big, bold, wild and dangerous.  You can camp anywhere, go anywhere, get in trouble, and die.  To navigate the few roads you need a 4WD.  The people you meet in the backcountry are compatriot desert rats.  Maps are approximate and intimate knowledge of the region is essential.

The Bears Ears National Monument is an area on a map, a set of words, and some management ideas.  If you can think of the Monument as something that is temporary, then you are starting to get the idea of this beautiful and ever changing region.  The Monument pulls together a number of incredible sites: places like Canyon Rims, Dark Canyon, the Abaho Mountains, White Canyon, Comb Ridge, Valley of the Gods, and most importantly Cedar Mesa. It connects Canyonlands National Park, Dark Canyon Wilderness, and the Glen Canyon Nation Recreation Area.  From Mexican Hat nearly to Moab, this is a huge area: 1.35 million acres.  All of it is historically important, culturally connected, and beautiful.  The question I address in the essay is this: Is the Monument a good thing?  To most people and for different reasons, the answer is a resounding “yes”. But what is fascinating to me is that its protection status itself might actually lead to its demise.  Has anyone thought of that?

Because a monument designation brings people.  It brings roads and maps and places with made-up names.  Picnic areas.  Monuments mean rules and regulations, safety chains on trails, hiking permits and off-limits areas.  “The Wave”, the most beautiful place on the plateau currently allows 10 people per day to visit.  It would take 95,890 years for everyone in the US to visit The Wave, but of course most would have to visit it dead.

A monument designation and its paved roads encourages urban vacationers to peer down onto the Natural Bridges with wonder.  Few wander into the canyon.  These car bound visitors would think Moonhouse was something left by Apollo 14.  Meanwhile the true desert rats are camped in trailless Step Canyon with the mountain lions and the ravens in what is now Bears Ears National Monument.

I have watched over the years as the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument has become established since it was designated by President Clinton in 1996.  What was once an nearly empty landscape inhabited by the ghost of Everett Ruess has become a land with outfitter shops, restaurants, rushing cars and trail maps.  The Burr Trail is paved. The slot canyons have waiting areas at each drop.  Towns in the area have profited from tourists, and they no longer look like one more good windstorm might blow them away. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  (Well, OK.  The slot canyons don’t have waiting areas).

The GSENM is one of the least regulated national monuments in the lower 48.  Yet, I’m not sure I like the change.  Too many people are loving it to death, and the love has just started.  But monument designation saved the delicate area from a proposed coal mine, and so many conservationists felt the GSENM was a huge win.  If those are the choices then I agree.

But Bears Ears is not like GSENM.  Bears Ears is loaded with fragile cultural sites and artifacts.  Better maps and information, more access roads and more people will bring more damage to those sites.  Heaven forbid it become another Mesa Verde National Park where no one can go anywhere without a Ranger leading the way, and camping is allowed only in overcrowded noisy campgrounds.  Be careful what you ask for.

One could also argue, I suppose, that the Bears Ears monument is too big, but big in the same way Las Vegas is too big.  If Las Vegas were only two acres it wouldn’t be the incredible resource wasting, river draining, unproductive eyesore on the landscape that it is.  Las Vegas is clearly unsustainable.  The monument on the other hand is too big only if you could argue that something more important should be happening on some of it.  However, whatever it is that is more important hasn’t happened for the last hundred or so years, and isn’t really planned, unless there are a lot of subsidy dollars to fund it.  Cedar Mesa for example, an area of some 400 square miles, currently has only one location with an electric light bulb: the Grand Gulch Ranger Station.  Cows have the run of the landscape because the cost of grazing those cows is subsidized by the US Government and made possible by US taxpayers. Cows can, and probably will, run on the monument. So it is hard to say it is too big.

On balance valuable public places like Bears Ears National Monument must be protected.  This protection may temporarily impact some local property owners in a negative way, but non-protection affects everyone. Property might belong to individuals, but property changes hand every day.  The Land belongs to all of us.

As we plan for development of Bears Ears National Monument I would argue strongly for fewer roads, good education programs about delicate sites, and no archeological sites printed on trail maps.

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