I first came to the area that is now Bears Ears National Monument 19 years ago, when the Halle-Bopp comet suddenly appeared in the desert sky. We scrambled down into a canyon, slept watching the night lit up and the bright tail of the thing streaking above us. During the day, we wandered into ancient Puebloan ruins that had survived 800 years of wind, flash floods and loneliness. Potsherds and old corn cobs littered the floors of these abandoned cliff homes. In some places other visitors had even lined them up carefully, an in-field display respectfully left for us and others who might find their way down here. I loved that it worked this way: There was a sense of mutual respect for the place, the ancients and not needing to take everything we find.
When I returned 15 years later all of that was gone. Looters or simply selfish souvenir hounds had left nothing but dust, except in some of the farthest, hardest-to-find ruins. Something beautiful was gone. Does everything have to be possessed?
In that same year, 1996, Utah erupted in controversy over President Clinton’s creation of a 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Locals wore black armbands and bemoaned the federal government taking away the land, but it is a fragile ecosystem that energy developers eyed for coal deposits under the waves of sandstone. Clinton used the Antiquities Act to protect the place, a law created to keep ruins from being ransacked. It was first used by Teddy Roosevelt to save iconic landscapes like Devil’s Tower and the Grand Canyon, which, as he saw it, qualified as objects of scientific and cultural interest under the law. The sting of Grand Staircase has stuck with conservative Utahans ever since, and the state’s legislature and governor have been on a mission not just to block national monument protections but to get rid of federal public land altogether, open it to more drills and roads and, in some cases, hand it over to private investors.
In December, this battle re-erupted when President Obama created the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears. In this case, the monument seemed more than warranted to protect the type of sites I have seen desecrated with my own eyes as well as to include the Native American people whose ancestors built these cultures in the cliffs in the management of the place (see page 15). A lot lies in the balance, as Utah’s lawmakers are doing their best to rescind the monument.
It’s a tragedy that goes deeper than preserving archaeological sites, public lands and sacred grounds. It has polarized conservationists and locals so that both sides have lost the ability to listen to each other. It has put conservatives who indeed love wild lands and places in the camp of eradicating them. It has left climbers, canyoneers and hikers bitter and angry at the people who have lived near these precious landscapes for generations. At stake is the future of something we all hold dear. We run the risk of losing not just the wonder of discovering wild places or potsherds left for others to appreciate, but also the civility of those who left these things untouched.
I spent time in Bears Ears last month with my family and friends whose families have lived in the Beehive State for generations. We celebrated the monument: We hiked to the famed House on Fire ruin. We wandered from a deep desert campsite overshadowed by the sheer, red cliffs of Comb Ridge through sage and juniper to a pathless canyon that held water and oaks and silence. I suggest you visit Bears Ears, too, to know what is at stake, and to make your voice heard when it comes to speaking up for it.