A new view on Bears Ears
... and learning to love (some) national monuments
by Jonathan Thompson
Sometime in the coming days or weeks, President Joe Biden is expected to wield the authority granted to him by the Antiquities Act – which turned 115 recently – to restore or even enlarge the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the wake of his predecessor’s shrinking of the same.
I’m not going to try to feign objectivity in this regard. I want to see those boundaries restored and then some.
But I haven’t always felt that way. And I’m sure that there are many others who are really nervous right now, people who care deeply about the landscapes that would be protected, but who worry that an expansion of the Trump-shrunken boundaries will rob the land of something and lure even more people and their attendant impacts. The concerns are legitimate. But in the case of Bears Ears, especially, the benefits of a national monument outweigh the potential pitfalls.
The most recent push to create a national monument in San Juan County, Utah, really got going in 2010, when conservative Utah politicians got their hands on the Obama administration’s “secret list” of places that “may be good candidates for National Monument designation under the Antiquities Act.” On the list was Cedar Mesa, which was how the general area now known as Bears Ears was referred to back then.
The white power base in San Juan County was furious, particularly given that this purported “land grab” was coming on the heels of the 2009 federal raid on Blanding pothunters and antiquities thieves. They saw it as yet another instance of federal overreach. I, too, was worried about the potential national monument designation, albeit for different reasons.
It’s difficult to express how much the landscape known as “Bears Ears” means to me, personally. My parents first took me camping in the shade of the cottonwoods where Arch Canyon meets Comb Wash five decades ago, when I was still an infant. I don’t remember, of course, but I am certain that the distinctive sound of the big green leaves dancing in the breeze, the glow of last light on Comb Ridge, and the miracle of a gurgling stream flowing through the desert were imprinted upon my impressionable psyche.
That, and “The Potholes,” another camping spot nearby, were where our low-budget family would spend its vacations throughout my childhood. It’s where we plopped down on our bellies and lapped up stagnant, sandstone-flavored water from desert potholes, where we’d hike up obscure canyons to visit ancient dwellings tucked into stone walls, where I indulged in the cloying sweetness of Fanta orange soda – a luxury reserved for such trips –and where I’d awake to the smell of breakfast cooking over a fire.
When I was a too-young-to-drive teenager, my parents would ferry my friends and me to desert trailheads and drop us off for two- or three-day backpacking excursions. Later they lent us their crappy cars to drive ourselves. The first time Wendy and I went camping together we drove up to Muley Point in the dark so that she woke up to her first view of the place and I’m pretty damned sure that’s why she ended up marrying me in an alfalfa field along the banks of the San Juan River next to Bluff. Maybe that’s why we’re still together.
So, when it seems like someone is going to mess with this place, I get my hackles up. And turning a place into a national monument or park certainly could qualify. Under the most-messing-with-it scenario, the National Park Service takes over, builds roads, trails, fences, campgrounds, and invites concessionaires to build lodges and shuttle services and gift shops. Alternative scenarios have played out in Grand Staircase-Escalante and Canyon of the Ancients national monuments, in which the Bureau of Land Management retains control and development is kept at a minimum.
But even that scenario is problematic in that it still draws a line around a boundless landscape and slaps a name on it—or brands it—thereby enhancing the ability to commodify it. It’s tough to market a vaguely defined region. But give it a catchy brand with a built in logo, like4 Bears Ears, and you’ve got something you can sell to the masses. Before long the “secret” places in which I sought solitude would be overrun by adrenaline freaks looking for a slot-canyon rappel or the next viral Instagram shot.
Take Grand Staircase-Escalante. Before Obama’s “secret list” came to light, Wendy and our daughters and I went to the monument for several days of camping and hiking. It was the first time I had visited there since my father and his friend Whitfield and I had gone on a mid-winter backpacking trip there in 1986, a decade before President Bill Clinton designated it a national monument. During that earlier trip we had stopped in Escalante for some snacks and gas, where we got the stink-eye from some crusty old locals. After that we saw no one for an entire week – and I nearly froze to death, but that’s another story.
When I returned a couple decades later, I found the same mind-blowing landscape but, of course, there were changes. Here’s what I wrote shortly thereafter:
The unpeopled place I remembered had vanished. We had to fight for spots in campgrounds. The trails were crowded. There were no more sketchy little stores selling expired Fritos; they were fully stocked with organic produce, tofu and Ed Abbey books, instead. Espresso is readily available, and there’s even a Buddhist restaurant, where the staff catches flies with a little non-harming vacuum cleaner. Instead of grumpy ranchers, there are now grumpy newcomers who, at the end of tourist season, are tired of trying to be nice to busloads of people who speak only French and smoke like chimneys at every stop.
Don’t get me wrong. I like espresso and French folks and Buddhists as much as the next guy. And it was a relief to cross through the piñon-juniper forests without seeing any sign of ATVs racing through the landscape, annihilating the cryptobiotic soil. The streambeds, through which the water ran clear and cool, were not trampled by cows or filled with manure; sage flats were not overgrazed. Conspicuously absent were herds of the big white gasfield trucks that are ubiquitous in so many parts of the West these days.
Yet, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. Gone, thanks to the national monument designation, is the solitude. Gone is the sense of discovery I had on that lonely morning long ago. Gone is the illusion that one could wander into one of these canyons and simply vanish a la Everett Ruess. In its place, despite the relatively primitive conveniences of this national monument, is the hint of commercialism that comes wherever tourism trumps every other way of making a living. And there are so many people now, intent on adoring the place so thoroughly that they wear it down like water on sandstone. They stream through relentlessly in cars and buses, their cameras clicking.
The Obama national monument list—and the idea of turning the Cedar Mesa area into a national monument—dropped into the background for the next five years. But they didn’t die. Quite to the contrary. A lot of people were working to build a coalition that was ultimately made up of five tribal nations, each with deep, ancestral roots in the area in question. In 2015, the Inter-Tribal Coalition asked President Obama to designate 1.9 million acres as the Bears Ears National Monument and to give those tribes a say in how it would be managed.
I have to admit, I was taken aback. My preconceived notions about who pushed for national monuments and why were shattered and I was forced to rethink my long held ideas of what a national monument is and what it means. This rethinking process began when, shortly after the coalition had traveled to Washington, I met in Bluff with Mark Maryboy, a Diné politician and community activist who has been a driving force in the effort to protect the lands of Southeastern Utah.
The lands in question are public, meaning they belong to all Americans. More than that though they belong to the people from whom they were usurped: The very tribes that were pushing for national monument designation. Maybe the tribes wouldn’t get the land back, but maybe a national monument over which they have some control is the next best thing. And even without tribal co-management, a monument is probably the most realistic means of upping protection of the tribes’ homeland and the cultural sites there.
More importantly, a co-managed national monument would provide an opportunity for those tribes to take control over their own history and heritage and to tell their own stories of the landscape. Who am I, with my desert-induced misanthropy or my fear of losing access to my favorite dispersed campsites, to stand in the way of that?
Maybe the national monument designation has drawn more people. But what’s the alternative? Would leaving it as it is—open to oil and gas leasing, uranium mining, or wind or solar energy development—really keep the crowds at bay? And even if it did, at what cost?
Besides, it doesn’t take a national monument designation to draw the masses to a place. They were already there, plying the canyons of Cedar Mesa, scouring ancient homes and dwellings of artifacts, piloting their UTVs along thousands of miles of roads and trails that crisscross the land. A thousand de facto marketing campaigns have been launched on social media to sell the place already, long before the monument was proposed.
Meanwhile, the sheer size of the national monument makes it that much harder to commodify. I realized that, too, after more visits to Grand Staircase-Escalante, where I found that the crowds tended to converge on a small handful of specific places—Lower Calf Creek Falls, for example—yet blew right past millions of other equally remarkable spots.
It was in one of those spots one June that I really saw the light. We were in a national monument, a popular one, surrounded by beauty and stone and light, and we even had the place to ourselves. I suspect that a modern-day Everett Ruess could still disappear in that crumpled sea of stone—whether it is called a national monument or not.
Jonathan Thompson is a fourth-generation Durangoan who runs the Land Desk, a thrice-weekly newsletter: visit www.landdesk.org. He is also the author of River of Lost Souls, Behind the Slickrock Curtain and the forthcoming Sagebrush Empire.