Stars sparkle overhead with a clarity that only comes far from electric lights. Tree frogs hum from the canyon below, coyotes howl on the mesa above. The soft “hoot, hoot-hoot” of a Great Horned owl echoes from above an alcove nearby. This alcove also happens to contain an Ancestral Puebloen granary which was made from stacked stones, clay mortar, and juniper beams over 700 years ago, still containing bits of corn and potsherds left behind by its previous owners.
One week before Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited Bears Ears National Monument on order from President Trump’s executive to review national monuments designated since 1996 under the Antiquities Act, I found myself camped high above Grand Gulch, a Wild and Scenic eligible stream flowing off Cedar Mesa in Southern Utah. The wildness and history of Grand Gulch, located within Bears Ears National monument, exemplifies what is so special about this region.
An Important Place
This is a landscape that was thousands of years in the making. Formed by a shallow, inland sea, the sedimentary rocks that underlay the region team with fossils and dinosaur tracks, and are marked by the crossbedding of prehistoric dunes. Canyon streams flow from high plateaus that brim with Ponderosa pine, aspen, deer, elk, coyotes and black bears. They cross Pinon-Juniper forests and finally descend through steep-walled canyons dotted with alcoves and natural arches on their way to either the Colorado River or San Juan River. Many have year-round water in them and are so special that they are being considered for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. They are the life blood of this parched, desert ecosystem.
In canyon alcoves, the observant traveler can view cliff houses, writings, and artifacts left behind by the ancient people that lived there 700-1000 years ago. All it takes is a free permit from BLM’s Kane Gulch Ranger Station and a short training so that one knows how not to harm this fragile landscape; How to dispose of human waste in a “cat hole” at least 100 feet from precious water sources or carried out in a special bag. How to travel and camp on durable surfaces, avoiding cryptobiotic soil crusts, and sensitive riparian areas. How to respect archeological sites by not climbing in or on granaries or cliff dwellings, not touching pictographs and petroglyphs, and by leaving any artifacts that you find.
For those of us who love the canyon country it is difficult to promote visiting them – both the ecosystems and the artifacts are fragile, and cannot handle users that are careless. This special area also needs to be known and loved in order to be protected.
National Monuments Need to be Maintained
Few places in our country are worthier of such protections. Working out the mechanics of these protections took diverse groups of people years of meetings and discussions. It is ironic that we are now faced with a short comment period while the current administration decides whether or not to shrink or rescind dozens of beloved national monuments, including Bears Ears. Competing interests want to allow more oil, gas and coal development in this unique landscape, risking the pollution of rivers, destruction of cultural history, and radically changing the roadless canyon country that remains intact.
Eliminating or damaging Bears Ears and Utah’s other national monuments also risks harming the state’s $12 billion outdoor recreation economy, which provides 122,000 direct jobs and $856 million in state and local tax revenue. Nationwide, our national monument system is a key component of our public lands that support the $887 billion U.S. outdoor recreation economy, providing Americans with 7.6 million jobs, not to mention places to seek solace and connect with both natural and human history.
Help Us Protect Bears Ears
We need your help to protect Bears Ears and ALL of our national monuments. These areas are our country’s heritage, and they need your voice. Submit a letter of support for Bears Ears National Monument before May 26.