By Craig Axford | United States
After visiting the original Bears Ears National Monument, I’m more convinced than ever the area deserves protection
Author’s note: Every photograph included in this article that was taken by the author was taken within the original boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument, but beyond the borders of the substantially reduced monument created by President Trump’s subsequent proclamation.
The Antiquities Act is something legislation isn’t these days: short and to the point. It’s only three paragraphs long and gives the President of the United States the authority “to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments…”
Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act was the first law to explicitly protect archaeological sites. Many of America’s most popular national parks were national monuments created by a president with a stroke of their pen first. These include Grand Canyon, Arches, and Capitol Reef National Parks.
With the exception of President Wilson, no president has ever interpreted the Antiquities Act as giving him the authority to make anything more than minor reductions in the size of a monument a predecessor had established. But, in his zeal to undo or dramatically alter every portion of Obama’s legacy, Donald Trump is willing to blaze new legal ground.
On December 4, 2017, President Trump signed two proclamations reducing the size of the Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments by roughly 50% and 85% respectively. Bears Ears was split into two separate parcels now labeled Indian Creek and Shash Jaa. Shash Jaa is the Navajo name for the geological formation known in English as “Bears Ears” that gave the monument its original name.
A historic landscape
In the introduction to a report prepared by the five Native American tribes making up the coalition that advocated for Bears Ears National Monument, Jim Enote, director of the Aishiwi Aiwaan Museum and Heritage Center of Zuni, New Mexico described the region of southeastern Utah covered by the original monument boundaries as “an incomparable and priceless place, a place with irreplaceable cultural resources, a place called Bears Ears.” Enote continued, “It is a place many Native peoples in the Four Corners area continue to define as home, soul, and the setting for their cultivation of cultures.”
Later in the same document, the Bears Ears area is placed in the same category as “the Giza pyramids, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, and Angkor Wat…” To many this no doubt seems like hyperbole. However, when we rid ourselves of the unimaginative linear perspective that relies on size and popularity to evaluate the worth of cultural and historical resources, we quickly realize that the Bears Ears region, taken as a whole, very much deserves to be listed among the world’s greatest cultural treasures.
The Bears Ears region is said to contain more than 100,000 archaeological sites. These include rock art, structures, burial sites, and areas used to grow crops. The area probably has the highest concentration of cultural resources in the United States.
Southeastern Utah owes its anthropological abundance in part to the fact that it’s located along the frontier of at least two different major ancient societies. The Bears Ears area marks the northern extent of the Anasazi culture which reached its peak during 11th, 12th and early 13th centuries, and the southern boundary of the Fremont culture that stretched from southeastern Utah nearly to present-day Wyoming. Considerable cultural cross-fertilization took place in this area as a result.
Today, the list of Native American peoples with significant ties to the region is long. Of these, five — Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Uintah & Ouray Ute — came together to successfully lobby the Obama Administration for national monument designation.
A land that resists settlement
The historian Paul T. Nelson has written that it’s possible to “map the Canyon Country [of southeastern Utah] according to its very ability to hinder settlements.” The boundaries of this region can be drawn by playing a game of connecting the dots with the few communities started by European settlers that still remain. Nelson suggests in his book, Wrecks of Human Ambition, that we start with Price, Utah, then head “southwest through the towns of Castle Valley (Castle Dale, Ferron, Emery), continuing through Torrey and Boulder before trending west again through Escalante, Cannonville, and Tropic and then south through the present route of Highway 89 through Orderville and Kanab. From Kanab take the line southeast across the Arizona line to Page and Kayenta then back into Utah through Mexican Hat and Bluff, before turning north through Blanding, Monticello, Moab, and Green River and finally northwest to return to Price.” Within this large polygon that effectively surrounds Utah’s entire southeast quadrant, the small town of Hanksville is the only contemporary community that exists inside its lines.
There was nothing in the European experience to prepare new settlers arriving in the region for the deep gorges, massive sandstone spires, and vast largely treeless expanses that the area is known for. Water is scarce, and sometimes too tainted by alkali or arsenic to drink. The Colorado River absorbs the Green River coming south from Wyoming to become the only major river in the vicinity. Until just a few decades ago the deep canyons cut by mighty Colorado and the intricate maze of defiles carved into the region’s famous red and orange sandstone by periodic flash floods remained barriers to movement across the heart of this country. Even now, travelers wishing to get to the opposite bank of the Colorado River will find only a few bridges on the periphery of the boundary Nelson describes that can facilitate the crossing.
So it is remarkable that, after spending two hours on an often bumpy road that includes sharp switchbacks and sections fringed with deposits just deep enough to capture the tires of any car and even a few all-wheel-drive vehicles with the efficiency of quicksand, one should find an abundance of 900 plus year-old ruins. Someone accomplished something here that later European newcomers have so far failed to do: they built long-term settlements relying only upon wood and stone in the canyon country’s most rugged heart.
A place and a consensus that’s difficult to reach
What was the northern end of Bears Ears National Monument can be accessed by driving south out of Moab, Utah. About midway between Moab and Monticello, there’s a turn off into Indian Creek Canyon that will take you past a profligate example of indigenous expression known as Newspaper Rock. After a brief visit to that roadside attraction, you’ll continue toward the southern entrance into Canyonlands National Park along Indian Creek road.
You’ll never make it to Canyonlands, however. At Dugout Ranch you will take a left off the pavement onto what is initially a deceptively well-maintained road. Thirty-two jarring miles later, if you’ve followed the few roadside signs provided, you will drop into a large bowl rather inelegantly named Beef Basin.
Nine centuries ago, the people living here knew nothing of beef. They were here to take advantage of the basin’s wide flatlands. They grew a few crops and hunted the wildlife that grazed upon the grasses rising amidst the fragrant turquoise sage filling the lowlands between the stands of pinyon and juniper blanketing the gentle slopes capped by sandstone spires, fossilized dunes, and rust-colored buttes.
Having provided some general directions to the area, I’m not inclined to give any specific instructions for finding any of the region’s many ruins. Some of its numerous archaeological treasures are right off the road and easy enough to spot. Others are remote without any visible trail to guide a visitor to them. The latter category obviously require more cognitive and physical effort to find, and that’s how it should remain. Even at a remote site we visited that has no trail to it, is at least a mile from the road, and isn’t marked on any map that I’m aware of a friend and I found evidence of looting.
The argument against national monument designation that you’re most likely to hear from people that genuinely love the area is that monument status brings more attention, which in turn inevitably brings more people. With more people comes a greater need for law enforcement, facilities, and calls for better roads. These, in turn, bring even more people. If only one in 100 of these visitors decides to ignore the law by slipping a potsherd or an extremely rare arrowhead into their pocket as a keepsake, it won’t be long before there’s nothing left but the stone walls of the ancient pueblos.
Those making this argument aren’t wrong about the impact hordes of tourists are likely to have. The problem is those tourists are coming anyway. In a February 2018 National Geographic article regarding the consequences of Trump’s decision to dramatically reduce the size of the Bears Ears National Monument and the nearby Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument created by President Clinton in 1996, Josh Ewing, executive director for a local group known as Friends of Cedar Mesa, described the challenge of protecting the area’s rich collection of cultural resources to the magazine as follows:
The biggest threat to Bears Ears in the immediate future, says Ewing, is visiting tourists. For many years, the area’s very remoteness protected its rich archaeology. There are more than 100,000 ancestral Puebloan sites — cliff dwellings tucked into mineral streaked sandstone alcoves, kivas, great houses, room blocks, ancient roads — encompassing millions of potsherds, petroglyphs, textiles, animal and human remains, sandals, grinding stones, 800-year-old-corn cobs. But the era of geotagging and image searches has altered that balance: ‘What the Internet did was take the images and the beauty and incredible archaeology and put it out there for people,’ Ewing says.
His organization estimates that visits to the area tripled between 2005 and 2015, doubled again in 2016, and doubled yet again in the first half of 2017, as the battle over the monument put Bears Ears in the news. As visitation has risen, so has the damage: tourists pocketing potsherds, campers using century-old Navajo hogans for firewood; graffiti on ancient rock panels; all-terrain vehicles blasting through ancestral burial grounds.
“The strategy of leaving it alone and trying to keep it a secret is an unsustainable option for protecting the land,” says Ewing. ~ February 2, 2018 National Geographic
I’m well aware of the irony. In writing this article I’m generating a little bit of the very publicity that Ewing and others rightly claim has facilitated the rise in tourism to the Bears Ears area. None-the-less, as Ewing also acknowledges, protection has now become as dependent upon attention as destruction and loss has been facilitated by it. The designation of the Bears Ears National Monument was an attempt to find the right balance in an age when it’s literally possible to locate remote archaeological sites from the comfort of your living room couch using Google Earth.
An opportunity to include Native Americans in management
In the original proclamation signed by President Obama in December of 2016, a commission was created consisting “of one elected officer each from the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, and Zuni Tribe, designated by the officers’ respective tribes.” Though federal land managers were not required to heed the counsel of this commission, they were required to hear it, and to provide an explanation for their decision to ignore it should they opt to.
Such consultation with indigenous people should be standard procedure for local, state, and federal land managers. Sadly, it hasn’t been. In southern Utah’s case the land’s own expansiveness, a laissez-faire libertarian attitude toward governance, and ongoing racial tensions between native peoples and more recent white settlers have all played their part in the approach taken toward environmental management.
This culture of casual indifference toward stewardship has been compounded by a lack of funding from the federal government. The area covered by President Obama’s original proclamation has exactly one law enforcement officer assigned to it, making the odds of catching a looter or other lawbreaker right up there with winning the lottery unless a witness happens to be around that turns them in.
Bringing tribes with a centuries-long connection to the area to the table at least offered an opening to loosen the status quo’s grip. Traditional points of view are fresh in this context and maybe just what’s needed in a landscape where permanence is such a powerful illusion. These canyons, mesas, and basins are constantly changing, but you have to look beyond the sandstone and walk unhurriedly through the stands of pinyon and juniper observing carefully with each step to glimpse it. You have to be willing to do more than just drop in for a visit. You need to stay a while and return now and then to have any hope of noticing the imperceptible reordering the wind, rain, and humanity are continually causing. Of those forces, it is the last one that is paradoxically both the most powerful and ultimately the most helpless in this inscrutable environment. The Anasazi likely knew that better than anyone by the time they abandoned the region between 1250 and 1300 CE.
This place could use the perspective of those that see it as more than a vacation spot or a brief encounter with history. It needs the people that view Bears Ears as a sacred ancestral home to offer the deeper sense of time that comes with a profound relationship to place. Those are feelings that only begin to awaken when you just stop by for a few days. Already, writing just two days after my return, I can feel that brief stirring quickly fading.
Donald Trump’s proclamation reduced the Bears Ears by 85% and split the monument in two, designating one of the new management areas “Shash Jaa”, the Navajo name for Bears Ears. President Obama, in the opening paragraph of his proclamation, listed several of the native names for this place: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe.
Perhaps I’ve become more cynical during the first months of the Trump Administration, but I suspect that in choosing the Navajo name Trump is attempting to divide the tribal coalition that called for the monument’s creation while simultaneously appearing sensitive to the nearest and largest indigenous population living in the vicinity. If so, there’s no indication the tactic had the desired impact. The same coalition that was brought together by their love for this special place is now fighting to restore the original 2016 proclamation. Like so many other decisions by this administration, the dramatic reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument is now being challenged in court.
My own recent visit confirms what everyone familiar with the region already knew; the land that Trump excluded contains as much, if not considerably more, than the two small remnants of the original monument that now remain. There was only one site that I identified on Google Earth prior to my visit that I could not find. It’s on top of a hill somewhere up Ruin Canyon. I’m not troubled by my failure to find it. Like so much within this magical terrain, it’s enough to know it’s there. Even just the possibility of its presence is sufficient: one of many places that might never be found and which, like Schrodinger’s cat, both exists and does not exist until you observe the place it might be.
As Wallace Stegner put it in his renowned Wilderness Letter of 1960, there is hope for us yet, and that hope resides in places like Bears Ears. I will let Stegner have the last word:
Not many people are likely, any more, to look upon what we call “progress” as an unmixed blessing. Just as surely as it has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us. One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals. Americans still have that chance, more than many peoples; for while we were demonstrating ourselves the most efficient and ruthless environment-busters in history, and slashing and burning and cutting our way through a wilderness continent, the wilderness was working on us. It remains in us as surely as Indian names remain on the land. If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we conquered.
A Short Bears Ears Photo Gallery
(All photos were taken by author)