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On Wednesday, Dec. 28, President Obama created Bears Ears National Monument. With only the brush of a hand and the ink of a pen, he designated 1.35 million acres of land in southeastern Utah as off limits to future development, preserving the archeological, cultural and geologic wonders that reside within the monument’s boundaries.
However, Obama’s proclamation generated tremendous controversy in Utah. Congressional and state leaders nearly uniformly oppose the monument, an area almost twice the size of Rhode Island. On Feb. 3, Governor Gary Herbert signed a resolution passed through the state’s house and senate urging president Trump to rescind Bears Ears’ monument status.
During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke vowed to visit the monument and make a recommendation as one of his first acts in his new position.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I sped into the desert late, late at night last weekend. I swerved across the empty road as I entered canyon country, gawking at the silhouettes of sandstone bluffs blotting out the stars above.
What I was thinking about was the Wingate Sandstone, the campfires to come, the massive mounds of red earth, the canyons, the stars, the smell of creosote after rain.
I was heading to the northern end of Bears Ears National Monument, a portion of the protected land that reaches up like an arm, right next to the southern entrance of Canyonlands National Park. My only plan was to cut myself off from the outside world, and to squirm my way up the immaculate cracks that line the area’s endless bluffs.
For years, I had migrated to this land whenever I longed for an escape from the anxiety of work, school, relationships, city life. Now, more than ever, I needed it. A move, a breakup, three jobs, grad school.
A few days amongst the juniper and ephedra, the cholla and the prickly pear, and I would come back refreshed and renewed, and covered in a thick layer of red sand.
But the history and culture of the place cuts much deeper than my own experience here.
The Navajo Nation resides on more than 27,000 square miles just south of the monument, and a coalition of five tribal nations played a major role in advocating for Bears Ears. For these tribes, identity and culture is inseparable from the area.
In the 1860s, Kit Carson, in command of U.S. Army troops, terrorized the Navajo people. Under his command, U.S. personnel killed livestock, left hogans in ashes and destroyed crops. During Carson’s campaign of terror, Navajo leader Kaa’yeelii, or Kigalia, hid in the area near the Bears Ears buttes, and established about six hogans. The name of the settlement, Naahootso, translates to “Place-Across-the-River-to-Escape-From-the-Enemy.”
Starting in 1864, during what’s often referred to the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” tribal peoples were forced to trek from their homeland in Arizona to Bosque Redondo, a remote area near Fort Sumner, in New Mexico. The journey was about 300 miles. About 10,000 Navajo people were forced to make the march; at least 200 died on the march itself, and hundreds more while held captive by the U.S. Army.
Famed Navajo leader Manuelito was born in Bears Ears, and fought back against the military’s brutality. To this day, the region symbolizes resistance.
Navajo stories of origin and creation draw from these lands. According to one story, the Bears Ears themselves — the namesake buttes in the area — arose from the head of a woman who turned into a bear to enact revenge upon her brothers. To this day, local peoples gather medicinal plants in the area, and the bear embodies healing and rootedness.
The history of the Navajo people finds roots in this earth and in these canyons. And it’s a history we’ve almost completely erased.
A group of climbers and I sat around a campfire, sunburnt and sore from a day on the cliffs, telling stories. In the distance, the Bridger Jacks mesa shot up from a cone of red dirt and talus like crooked, misshapen teeth. I could see the headlamps of climbers atop one of the incisors, searching for a way out of the night.
A figure ambled over to our site. The ember of his cigarette danced in the dark. His dog, a 9-year-old Border Collie named Shiva, the white in her fur stained red from the desert dust, trailed behind him.
He introduced himself as Z. He’s Filipino, but grew up in the South, he quickly said. He headed west to leave some of his past behind, and spends pretty much all his time out here when the weather’s right. The land, he said, means everything to him.
“I think it’s her 68th time out here,” he said, gesturing to his dog.
He sat on a rock and plopped down a grocery bag full of Budweisers. Shiva plunked down behind him.
“This is the west,” he said, gesturing to the cliffs that surrounded us. “You can go to a long time ago. You feel that sense of adventure. But the horse has turned into the Toyota pickup truck.”
I felt curious how this land had affected everyone around the fire, even if their time here was fleeting. So I asked them.
“There are big skies, endless possibilities,” one fire-goer said.
“It has wisdom in more ways than we can imagine,” said another.
“It’s raw. It’s open. Still wild. And you want to fucking get lost in it.”
“It’s sacred ground. It’s sacred for us too,” Z said.
The land, they seemed to say, spoke to all those who sank their toes in its sand. In fact, climbers and native peoples have united to fight for its protection.
To demonstrate the beauty and significance of the land, the outdoor company Patagonia created a massive “multimedia experience” that includes stories of the monument’s historical and cultural value, as well as its recreational opportunities. The company united with REI and The North Face to advocate for the maintenance of the national monument.
After a heated phone call with Governor Herbert about the fate of Bears Ears last month, the Outdoor Industry Association decided to move its annual trade show out of Utah. The show brings about $50 million to the state every year.
However, the battle over Bears Ears isn’t as cut and dried as a fight between those who value the land for its beauty and history, and those who want to exploit it.
Local landowners in San Juan County, the home of Bears Ears, claim the national monument constitutes a federal land grab. They’ve been stewards of the land here since they 1800s, they contest, and their culture and history roots them to the place too. They frame the debate in terms of “locals” versus “outsiders.” The roots of this ideology go back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and beyond.
If these folks were sitting around the fire with us, they’d claim we’re just tourists. We couldn’t possibly understand what care of the land means, or what the jobs and economic opportunities enabled by mineral extraction and grazing rights mean to them. Our connection, they might say while pulling back the last gulp of one of Z’s Buds, is a superficial and a selfish one.
Which is all true, pretty much.
Not even all Native American groups support the monument. At a rally the day after Obama’s announcement, numerous Native American residents of San Juan County spoke out against the monument. Rally-goers chanted for Washington to “Trump the Monument.”
“The whole tone of it seems like the tribes are generally being used as pawns for the environmental groups to get what they really want,” Byron Clarke, a member of the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation, told the Deseret News. “They are being played. It is somewhat insulting.”
Pointing to ongoing threats, proponents of the monument single out the environmental and aesthetic harm of oil and gas drilling, and the mining industry. Opponents say these are crucial to the local economy.
The fight isn’t about exploitation and preservation of the land, but over who gets a say in its management. It’s a battle about respect, about whose voice echoes through the canyon walls, whose gets tangled up in the sagebrush and juniper.
Under Obama’s proclamation, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service jointly manage the new monument. Locals have a voice in an advisory committee, and tribal representatives form a commission to ensure that indigenous people maintain access to the land.
In other words, the monument is set up to give all parties involved a seat at the table, and it gives native peoples a more prominent seat than ever before.
As I drifted back to Boulder, I stopped at Newspaper Rock, one of the area’s roughly 100,000 archeological sites. It’s roadside, with a big, paved parking lot and a short fence guarding its historic contents. The rock itself is a living room-sized block of varnished stone, dotted with hundreds of petroglyphs. Some of them are more than 1,500 years old. The archeological sites throughout Bears Ears date back as far as 12,000 BCE.
This road, the rock makes clear, has been a sort of road for centuries. It’s where history and development intersect in a spectacular way. Tourists barely have to leave the air conditioning of their cars to marvel at the works of ancient art.
On Newspaper Rock, I could see footprints and wheels, squiggles and shapes, hands, bison, turtles, goats and rams, horned beasts and alien-looking creatures with odd, geometric heads and spears. I could tell some of the engravings were less than a few hundred years old, for they depicted hunters riding stallions. Some that I guessed were particularly ancient had faded, nearly varnished over completely.
“What do you think those squiggles are?” one onlooker asked, to no one in particular.
“Rivers,” I speculated. “Rivers and creeks.”
She gave me a funny look.
Above and to the side of the petroglyphs, other engravings emerged from the rock. Ranchers’ signatures from the early and mid-1900s. Graffiti, manically scratched out. Bullet holes.
The harsh and wondrous landscape here produces feelings of longing, nostalgia, wildness a d opportunity. The controversy arises because the place feels like home to nearly all who sweat on its sands. It’s a home we need to learn to share, to care for, to preserve.
As it’s currently structured, Bears Ears National Monument operates as an innovative and important compromise between federal authorities, San Juan county locals and tribes.
We ought to do everything we can to protect Bears Ears, and places like it. Tell Ryan Zinke to preserve its monument status.
Contact CUI Graduate Assistant Nick Mott at Nicholas.Mott@colorado.edu.