The 1.9 million acres proposed for the Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah is easily one of the most important cultural and archaeological sites in the United States. It contains a broad array of structures, such as granaries and kivas, and many petroglyphs and pictographs. There are pottery remains underfoot everywhere.
These resources are terribly fragile and need to be protected. Think about a group of kids using the roof of a kiva as a trampoline or campers making a fire ring out of the blocks from a 2,000-year old dwelling. Pictographs are particularly fragile and irrecoverable if damaged. Some of this damage is unintentional, however, many incidents are not. Looters target burial grounds casting human bones aside in search of valuable and irreplaceable baskets, fabrics and pots.
In addition to the physical resources, when you are in a place like Grand Gulch, you are immersed in the cultural landscape of the Native Americans who lived there. You feel close to, connected to the ancient Americans. Never at any other point in time have we been able to more fully and scientifically examine and respect the rich history that surrounds us, but with that opportunity comes an increased obligation to protect these cultural artifacts for future generations.
Monument designation will allow important cultural traditions to continue like collecting herbs, foraging for food, gathering firewood and hunting game. Contrary to critics’ claims, a monument designation will also allow public access to recreational activities like camping, hiking, and ATV riding in designated areas so that the land, natural resources and artifacts are safeguarded.
During my 35-year career with the Bureau of Land Management, 12 years of which were spent in Utah, I became intimately familiar with this area. As the BLM’s Chief of Recreation, Cultural and Wilderness Resources in Washington, D.C., I was well aware of the importance of the public lands in Southern Utah and continued to visit there frequently.
In addition to my professional life, I have extensively explored Southern Utah with friends and family including hiking, biking, rock climbing, river rafting and sightseeing. We’ve gone into Grand Gulch, both by hiking and horseback, and I have rafted the San Juan River. I have firsthand personal knowledge, experience, and interest in the area.
Protecting this vital cultural and archaeological resource has been a priority for public land managers for many years. In the 1980’s I visited the BLM’s Monticello Utah office and they were already strongly advocating for increased attention and protection of this area. Today, the group working to protect this area has grown to include archaeologists, paleontologists, writers, artists, veterans, labor leaders, faith leaders, sportsmen, outdoor businesses and trade associations.
Utah’s congressional members, too, have committed to protecting this area, but their efforts fall short. A bill known as the Public Lands Initiative undermines existing protections for thousands of acres of wilderness study areas and loosens rules on water development projects. In many areas proposed for conservation, the protections within the legislation are riddled with loopholes that will open up land to deforestation and energy development. These shortcomings in conservation and management measures do not adequately address the problems that exist.
But there is a solution. The United States President has within their authority the ability to designate this area a National Monument. The proposal to designate Bears Ears as such, and proposed cooperative approach to management, is long overdue and is greatly needed.
Frank Snell held various Utah and national leadership positions during his 35-year career with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. He retired as the BLM chief of recreation, cultural and wilderness resources and now lives in Portland, Ore.
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