South of Bears Ears Pass, the tree covered Cedar Mesa stair steps down into the San Juan River canyon and the red dirt desert of the Navajo Nation. The pinnacles and buttes of Monument Valley rise up in front of distant Black Mesa, home of the Hopi, and the longest continually inhabited city in the continental United States. To the southwest, the dome shaped laccolithic intrusion of Naatsisaan, or Navajo Mountain juts skyward. To the southeast, Sleeping Ute Mountain looms over the Four Corners where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico share a common boundary.
This is Indian Country and has been for at least 3000 years. Mostly uninhabited now, Cedar Mesa was once home to the thriving Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the area’s twisting canyons, farming corn, squash and beans, and constructing mud and stone villages in the sweeping cliff walls. Drought forced these people from the area around 1100 AD. They migrated south and east into what is now New Mexico, and Arizona to become the Hopi, Zuni and other pueblo tribes. By the 1400s Ute people had migrated into the region followed by the Navajo a hundred or so years later.
The Bears Ears themselves are a pair of 9000′ buttes rising up from forested Elk Ridge in south central San Juan County, Utah. As visual landmarks, they can be seen from all corners of the region. I’ve relied on them heavily over the years while navigating beneath the low canopy of pinyon pine and juniper. “Them’s the Bears Ears,” we would shout each time we caught a glimpse of them, assured that we were headed in the right direction in search of another ruin filled canyon to descend.
The Bears Ears region has become the newest ground zero in the battle over Utah’s federal public lands. But in a war that has long been waged between environmental groups and white, rural residents from nearby communities, the voice of Native America represents a new front in a proposal to set aside 1.9 million acres as a national monument. An inter-tribal coalition of Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, White Mountain Utes and Uintah/Ouray Utes, has asked President Obama to invoke his powers under the Antiquities Act to protect the area for it’s cultural and spiritual significance. The proposal also has the support of two dozen other tribes and the National Congress of American Indians.
But in a twist that keeps the native voice from being unanimous, Navajos from the Aneth Chapter in San Juan County have come out in opposition to the monument proposal. Though the chapter is only one of seven in Utah, and one out of 110 on the entire Navajo Nation, their opposition has fueled the arguments of other detractors and has driven a wedge into an otherwise united front.
San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a Navajo originally from New Mexico, has voiced her strident opposition to a monument. Benally did not respond to my requests for an interview, but in an editorial for the San Juan Record she said that she spoke on behalf of “grassroots Utah Navajos” who depend on the land for a basic living including hunting, gathering medicinal plants and firewood, and for performing cultural and spiritual traditions. She said that in spite of claims that these practices would still be allowed, the federal government is not to be trusted. “We do not support any movement to convert our sacred lands to a monument that will ultimately be controlled by bureaucrats unfamiliar with our history and traditional ways,” Benally wrote.
Benally blames outside environmental groups for selling the idea of a national monument to Native Americans, citing the examples of Canyon de Chelly and Wupatki where monument designations do not meet Native American needs. “We reject the notion that groups outside of San Juan County should dictate the future of these lands or pretend to speak for us and have our best interest, but we know better,” Benally said. “We can speak for ourselves. Environmental groups, do not insult our intelligence.”
Benally took her case to the state capitol for a meeting with the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands. In a room of mostly monument supporters, including Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Councilwoman Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Benally blamed outside “special interests,” for forwarding an agenda that was not in the best interest of local Navajos. “There’s intimidation, harassment, bullying and the tactic of divide and conquer that is being used against my people, Navajo against Navajo, Native Americans against Native Americans,” she said.
Whiteskunk, in an editorial with the Deseret News, said that Native American support was overwhelmingly unified around the designation of a Bears Ears National Monument. She said that “Ideological opponents of Bears Ears have worked hard to manufacture dissent and plant confusion among local native people.” She said the time was now to call on President Obama to invoke his powers under the Antiquities Act, protect the land and stop the looting of ancient artifacts in their Four Corners homeland. “Today we must find new tools to conserve our important landscapes and our way of life because Congress is not willing or able to get the job done,” she said.
In late May, fliers appeared around the Navajo Nation, and on public bulletin boards in the San Juan County towns of Bluff, and Mexican Hat. One was a fake news release purporting to be from the Department of the Interior, signed by Secretary Sally Jewell saying that more than 4 million acres were going to be taken from the Navajo Reservation and turned over to the BLM.
Another flier announced a party celebrating the creation of the new Bears Ears National Monument. The party was said to be hosted by Utah Dine Bikeyah (UDB), a Native American-led nonprofit that works to protect culturally significant, ancestral lands; the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance; and Great Old Broads for Wilderness. The flier said that Secretary Jewell would be in attendance, and that everyone was invited except Utah Navajos. Another document was circulated claiming to be a letter from Oljato Chapter House Vice President Albert Holiday, asking state and national leaders not to support the monument proposal because it would ban firewood gathering as well as access for religious activities. And another flier was left at trailheads on Cedar Mesa claiming open season on backpackers from Colorado.
Mark Maryboy, former San Juan County Commissioner, and board member of UDB, told me he is baffled by the opposition springing from Navajos in the Aneth Chapter House and from his former ally, Rebecca Benally. “She must enjoy being groomed by Congressman Bishop and Senator Hatch,” he said. Maryboy says that Benally is continually “beating the drum” that native people will lose access to the land if a monument is designated. He says that the proposal put forth by UDB, and the Bears Ears Tribal Coalition, explicitly calls for co-management by Native Americans and guarantees access to the land for traditional uses. “That’s the part that commissioner Benally isn’t understanding,” he said.
Maryboy has been advocating for the protection of Cedar Mesa for more than 30 years. In 1986 he was elected as the first Native American county commissioner in the State of Utah. While in office he engaged in fierce clashes with fellow commissioner Cal Black, the notoriously pro-development, anti-wilderness crusader memorialized as Bishop Love in Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Like Abbey, Maryboy says he has seen the damage that oil, gas, and uranium exploitation can do. “This land is very special,” he said. “It’s very important to protect the ancient sites. We need to protect Mother Earth.”
In 2010, Maryboy formed UDB and worked with then Utah Republican Senator Bob Bennett to draft a wilderness proposal for Cedar Mesa. In 2013, the organization entered into talks with San Juan County, and a public lands stakeholder group, as part of Congressman Rob Bishop’s Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI). Maryboy says that the Native American position was never taken seriously by the San Juan County Commission or Rep Bishop. Notes from an October 2013 meeting, taken by UDB, quote San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman as saying that Native Americans “Lost the War,” and that they shouldn’t be commenting on public lands issues.
Lyman, who was convicted for leading an illegal ATV ride through archaeologically rich, Recapture Canyon in 2014, told me that San Juan County “takes care of their backyard,” and that they spent a year and a half working on an aggressive protection proposal for Cedar Mesa. “This is not something San Juan County is known for,” Lyman said. “We came to the table with environmental groups, we accepted Dine Bikeyah, and Friends of Cedar Mesa with their original proposal of 650,000 acres.”
Lyman says the monument proposal now being put forth is disingenuous, and he loathes the idea of a presidential proclamation. “We’re talking a third of San Juan County,” he said. Lyman says that a monument designation would give a “blank check” to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and that it is just “another whip they can use against the citizens of San Juan County.”
Condemnation of the monument proposal has also been swift from Utah legislators, the majority of whom would like to see all federal public lands in Utah to be turned over to the state. In March 2015, the Utah State Legislature passed a resolution stating that grazing and mineral development was the “highest and best use” for Cedar Mesa. In May of this year, the legislature passed, and Governor Gray Herbert signed, a strongly worded resolution opposing the designation of a Bears Ears National Monument. Herbert, on his monthly news conference broadcast on KUED, said he hoped that the resolution would reach President Obama, and help him realize that he “ought to listen to the people of Utah.”
On the federal level, Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz continue to hold out their Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI) as the key to solving the federal public lands debate and averting presidential designation of a national monument. Dubbed the “Grand Bargain” by Bishop, the more than three year process has brought various stakeholders to the table including ranchers, mineral developers, environmental groups, and recreational users – both motorized and non – to try and hammer out an agreement for land use designations on federal public lands.
After numerous missed deadlines, Bishop released a discussion draft in February. Environmental groups quickly denounced it as a giveaway to the extraction industry with SUWA Executive Director Scott Groene dubbing it the “plundered land initiative.” SUWA has since dropped out of PLI negotiations along with the Bears Ears Tribal Coalition, who aborted in January saying that their proposal wasn’t being taken seriously.
The Obama administration has said they are willing to wait and see if Bishop’s PLI legislation can prevail before declaring a national monument, but a rumored visit by Secretary Jewell in July has people speculating that a national monument is in the works. Bishop says he plans to release his draft legislation soon, but most agree that time is running out and few believe the bill has much chance of being passed even if it is introduced.
Executive Director for the Friends of Cedar Mesa, Josh Ewing, hasn’t given up on the PLI, but he is willing to go all in with monument proponents if need be. “We’re agnostic about how it happens,” he said. “We’re willing to work with anyone who will work with us.” Ewing, who worked as a stakeholder on the San Juan County Lands Council for the PLI, says he prefers legislation but thinks it has the lowest probability for success. He says he hasn’t met anyone who doesn’t think the Bears Ears region deserves some sort of protection, but that the latest draft for the PLI leaves important areas unprotected. He cited all the major petroglyph panels on the San Juan River, including one of a mammoth that is thought to be the oldest in the region, as well as important drainages of White Canyon and the south flanks of the Abajo Mountains.
Ewing says that so-called “energy zones” in the draft legislation are a poison pill, and he advocates trading chunks of state land within the Bears Ears region for federal land in other places such as Lisbon Valley where development is already occurring. “Most reasonable people wouldn’t say that there shouldn’t be energy development on public lands,” he said. “But there are more appropriate places than one of the most archaeologically important places in the country.”
Ewing is particularly concerned about looting and vandalism of archaeological resources, and he hopes that a protective designation will bring more law enforcement and additional resource management personnel to the area. “The BLM has documented 25 incidents of serious cultural resource damage since 2011,” he said. “We know there are several more. We’ve tracked seven since 2015.”
Utah State Representative Mike Noel, who has accused environmental groups of propping up Native American support for a Bears Ears National Monument, recently said in the Salt Lake Tribune that looting and grave robbing in the area is the result of badgers. “We have to get a handle on these badgers because those little suckers are going down and digging up artifacts and sticking them in their holes,” he said.
“Pot hunting” as a pastime is deeply rooted in the culture of white residents in San Juan County. For people who grew up in a region where arrowheads still turn up regularly in backyard gardens, and every canyon is filled with ruins, the accumulation of ancient artifacts has become a commonplace hobby engaged in by everyone from boy scouts to families on picnics. But the rampant looting and vandalism of archaeological sites has taken a serious toll on the region’s cultural resources. I’ve been told stories of people using pots lined up on a ledge for target practice, while many of the region’s rock art panels are riddled with bullet holes. In my own travels across remote mesa tops, I’ve come across giant mounds of dug up soil littered with hundreds of broken pottery sherds, many of them excavated by what could only have been a backhoe.
On June 10, 2009, federal agents descended on the town of Blanding in a raid described by residents as a heavy-handed siege complete with FBI snipers on rooftops. Dr. James Redd, his wife, and 14 other Blanding locals were arrested on charges of trafficking in stolen artifacts. The Redds had been charged with stealing artifacts before in the 1990’s, and in 1986 another raid in Blanding netted two of the three county commissioners. On June 11, 2009 Dr. Redd committed suicide. Local residents blamed Redd’s suicide on the federal government for their harsh tactics, adding more fuel to the fire of long held resentments.
From Bears Ears Pass I wheeled down to U.S. Highway 95 and headed east. Cresting a rise, I pulled over at Salvation Knoll, where in the spring of 1880, Mormon settlers from the Hole In the Rock Expedition looked down on the final impediment to their six month odyssey across the country—the canyons of the Colorado River to a hoped for townsite on the banks of the muddy San Juan River. Comb Ridge, a 75 mile long, 1000′ high wall of uplifted sandstone ran perpendicular to their passage. In late afternoon 136 years later I saw the great red barrier aglow as a beautiful sight, and in a few minutes, I would be riding on through a notch blasted in the rock. For me, the region was a place to move through and enjoy. For those Mormon pioneers, with names like Lyman and Redd, it had been a place of hardship and terrible travails. They had worked like I would never know to eke a living out of this wild and mysterious landscape.
Lyman says that what’s at stake is freedom. It isn’t so much about whether or not the area is going to be a monument, as much as it is about the process. “Everybody loves the Bears Ears,” he said. But the question for Lyman is whether a heavy handed federal government is going to come in and dictate what’s right for the people, or are they going to take input from those who live here?
I asked Ewing if he felt that a monument designation would do more harm than good as more and more people flocked to the area. “The secret of Cedar Mesa is out of the bag,” he said. “It’s hard to argue that a monument designation wouldn’t bring more visitation but it’s already happening. At least we might be able to manage people better.”
I looked south from the knoll and could see the white cedar mesa sandstone on the edges of a deepening canyon. I knew that if I followed the shallow tributary down, I would likely find pottery sherds among the stones in the wash, and that if I prowled along the rim, I would find granaries tucked into the rocks. They would all be picked over and empty save for a few miniature dried corncobs, a few sherds, and some chert chippings. But I could only imagine how it would feel to find one still sealed. The desire to break it open would almost be insurmountable. The thought of finding buried treasure in the form of a turkey feather blanket, a woven basket, or a pair of yucca fiber sandals has been enough to send me prowling over this area for close to thirty years. In my mind, I’m convinced that when I do find that whole pot intact I’ll leave it where it lies, but the desire to possess something greater than ourselves is a powerful thing.