President Trump has issued an executive order declaring a “review” of the national monuments established in the last 20 years. Many (including myself) fear this “review” is a pretense for dramatically reducing the scope of federal protection for many of America’s most historic and inspiring lands.
The review requires a public comment period, which is open from now until May 26th. You can read more about our public lands and submit your own public comments from this Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance page:
My comments are below. I would encourage you to submit your own today!
Bears Ears National Monument contains scores of thousands of archaeological resources of significant historic interest. These lands and riches warrant the highest measure of protection. The area’s estimated 80,000+ ruins, rock art, and other remnants of the area’s human history prior to the arrival of Europeans deserve protection both from willful removal or destruction as well as from destruction by natural resource (or even recreation) development. No one disputes this statement. At issue is the size and boundaries of the monument, and whether the current border are the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
I have myself spent weeks hiking the mesas, canyons, and valley floors of Bears Ears National Monument. I’m less acquainted than many living in San Juan County, but more familiar with these lands than most voicing an opinion in the matter.
I agree with the Utah Diné Bikéyah that the current boundaries of Bears Ears do not adequately protect the objects to be protected. This is true for two reasons. First, the current boundaries exclude a significant concentration of the area’s ruins and archaeological sites. Second, significant scale is in and of itself required for the proper care of the fragile and precious resources contained within.
The current national monument boundaries exclude many areas rich with human history, including Recapture Canyon and Montezuma Canyon. I spent part of April exploring and camping in these areas outside of Bears Ears. In both canyons I found both a dense concentration of remarkable relics from the Ancestral Puebloans–impressive structures, and many pieces of beautifully glazed pottery and enigmatic earthenware. The Utah Diné Bikéyah sought protection for these areas, and rightfully so. The current review should consider expanding the boundaries to protect these areas.
Boundaries drawn only to the edge of concentrations of archaeological sites are of little value for conservation. During my recent month in the area, I noticed a dramatic difference between the ruin sites located close to roads and developed areas, and those protected by a buffer of wild space. The more accessible areas were aseptic, denudes the blanket of traces of habitation (pot shards, piñon nuts, corn cobs and the like) present at most backcountry sites. As awesome and impressive as many of the area’s structures are, it is the rich detritus of everyday life–the pot shards and remnants of cultivated corn–that creates a compelling and profound sense of connectedness to those who inhabited these lands before us.
Allowing looters and uninformed visitors to gather and steal these vestments of collective history fails the “proper care and management” test. One management option would be monitoring or patrolling (an approach taken elsewhere, such as Mesa Verde National Park). Given the vast dispersion and number of the area’s 80,000+ archaeological sites, protection via law enforcement is an unaffordable fantasy. A more realistic management approach is to pad these sites and their objects with additional protected land, limiting access to those who value these fragile sites enough to work to get to them.
It is, of course, proper that locals have a voice and say in the management of the lands in which they have greatest stake. A quick glance at the demographics of San Juan County (which you don’t see reflected in the membership of the Stewards of San Juan County) is that approximately half the county’s residents are Native American. The BENM monument enshrines into law a process that gives the tribes who inhabit (or whose ancestors inhabited) this area a real voice in the use and management of these lands.
It’s also proper that those living outside of San Juan County have a voice in the use and management of these lands. Do not all American’s have a stake in our national parks, national monuments, and all our federal lands? This in the purpose and ingenuity of our federalist system of governance, that the desires of a few can be balanced against the interests of the many. I ask only that, in the great tradition of democracy, my voice be given weight equal to all others expressing an opinion, and that the majority opinion be heeded.