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This Land Is Your Land

Aug 17, 2017 12:08PM ● By Leland Rucker
More than 1.35 million acres of red rock, desert, canyons, bluffs, juniper forests, valleys, rocks, and archaeological sites, Bears Ears National Monument is a rugged, wondrous place in southeastern Utah. President Barack Obama designated the wild and remote area an official national monument under the federal Antiquities Act last December, just before he left office. Then, in April, new President Donald Trump signed an executive order that instructed US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to reconsider all monuments created since 1996.

Haggling over federal lands, especially in Utah, is a longstanding tradition that has gotten particularly nasty at times. While environmental groups, the tourist industry, and Native Americans lauded the creation of Bears Ears, President Donald Trump called it a “massive federal land grab that’s gotten worse and worse and worse.” His words echo those of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who, in 1996, called Bill Clinton’s designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument “the mother of all land grabs.” (That one was so controversial that Clinton announced the creation of Escalante from neighboring Arizona.) But with the Senate and House reluctant to take up public-land legislation, Clinton, like Bush and Obama and many presidents before them, including Ronald Reagan, added significantly to the nation’s treasury of protected areas.

Given that backdrop, and that it’s under the federal microscope, Miss Billie and I had to see Bears Ears for ourselves. We were eager to find out what all the fuss is about, so we headed southwest to Utah. 

For our Bears Ears visit, we stayed just more than an hour from Hovenweep National Monument in Bluff, Utah. A little over a seven-hour drive from Denver, Bluff is a patch of green amidst, you guessed it, massive rock bluffs with the impressive Comb Ridge formation, which forms a kind of backbone for Bears Ears, poking up behind.

Fresh off its national monument designation, Bears Ears doesn’t yet have a visitor center, and there are few signs or facilities. And it is vast, encircling other monuments like Newspaper Rock and Natural Bridges, skirting the edges of Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and overlapping the Dark Canyon Wilderness. At one place we stopped, copper tubes were aimed at certain landmarks, with one directed at Dead Horse Point, the northernmost boundary more than 40 miles away.

We checked maps and talked with our host at the motel in Bluff before deciding on a one-day drive that began in Bluff, went west over the Comb Ridge formation to Valley of the Gods, then north to Muley Point and Natural Bridges before turning east over another section of the Comb Ridge and back into Bluff. To get almost anywhere farther into the monument, including driving between the Bears Ears formations themselves, you’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. 

One of the best couple of hours you can ever spend is on the gravel road that winds through the Valley of the Gods. A 15-mile drive takes you amidst goliath monoliths and fantastical formations, with trails and overlooks reminiscent of those at the more famous Monument Valley, the backdrop for all those western films of the mid-20th century, which is sometimes visible in the distance from parts of the park.

Heading north, we immediately faced the enormous escarpment that is Cedar Mesa, 1,200 feet directly above us. The only way up is through the infamous Moki Dugway, a wild, mesmerizing, three-mile ascent up a winding series of switchbacks to the Cedar Mesa Plateau, upon which much of Bears Ears is situated. Moki was built in the 1950s when uranium for nuclear weapons was hauled by truck from an area in Bears Ears to a processing plant in Mexican Hat to the south.

After enjoying the dizzying sight looking back down into Valley of the Gods near the top of the Dugway, we immediately headed over to Muley Point, an overlook with John’s Canyon, imposingly dug by the San Juan River, immediately below. I could see some of Monument Valley in the distance.

I say “some” because pristine views are a thing of the past. There are two major coal plants still in operation in Utah, and though they are not the only culprits, air quality in the region has diminished enough that it’s causing serious consternation for marketers and lodging owners as well as outfitters and guides.

The Parks Service is intimately aware of the problem. “Many visitors to Canyonlands don’t see the clear vistas they expect,” its website proclaims. “A haze often hangs in the air, and most of this haze is not natural: it is air pollution, carried on the wind from distant coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities.” 

Anecdotally, we can remember seeing Shiprock, the huge rock forty miles south of Cortez in New Mexico as the vulture flies, just 15 years ago. Now it’s barely visible out there in the haze, and only if you know where to look. The EPA has taken steps to bring the coal plants into stricter compliance, but it and the Park Service face deep budget and personnel cuts, which may hamper any future environmental efforts.

It didn’t take long before the iconic Bears Ears formations begin appearing in front of us as we headed toward Natural Bridges National Monument, and we will see the two buttes from different angles all day. It’s pretty easy to understand why earlier residents would have considered them significant, if for no other reason than that they are visible from any direction.

It was worth stopping at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station at the Grand Gulch Trailhead, where we found videos, exhibits, books, and displays about the area, and a ranger told us about current information about weather conditions, roads, and the many nature trails in the area.

We passed the Elk Mountain Road that takes you between the two Ears if it’s the right time of year, on our way to Natural Bridges, which was designated a monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. It includes a nine-mile rim drive with many stops and inspiring views of the three main bridges and well- established walking trails down into each.

There were arguments over its size during the years-long negotiations over the fate of Bears Ears. Interior Secretary Zinke will almost surely shrink it, using the Antiquities Act’s injunction that “in all cases, it shall be confined to the smallest area compatible” and the fact that money has not yet been spent on facilities, roads, or a visitors center. Besides more than 100,000 architectural sites and cultural artifacts revered by Native American tribes, Bears Ears holds oil, mineral and gas reserves, and the state is ready to begin extracting them as soon as the rules change.

Using the Antiquities Act to negate earlier presidents’ actions is unprecedented and will no doubt be met with lawsuits and court actions, which could take years to negotiate. Most Utahans we talked with were supportive of the monument, but it’s hardly unanimous. The town of Bluff heavily promotes its proximity to Bears Ears—streamers flew in almost every yard and business window—but we saw our share of signs and posters opposing it, too.

I keep thinking about the idea of wilderness and oil or gas or uranium trucks again snaking down the Moki Dugway switchbacks to Mexican Hat. Opening the area to exploration will create more big-rig traffic, more dust, and more air pollution, and for what? A few more years of oil and oil company profits?

And I think about what Wallace Stegner wrote about this area: “It is a lovely and terrible wilderness. …That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven’t the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look … they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there.”

Making monuments smaller or opening them to extraction might sound practical and might even benefit us in the short run. But, as Stegner notes, there is a value to leaving it intact so humans can just sit and look. We’re seeing all these wonderful things because of the foresight of Teddy Roosevelt and presidents on both sides of the political fence over more than a century. People more than a hundred years from now should be able to appreciate them, too.