“Fill up the eye and overflow the soul.”
Thus did renowned Western writer and former Badger Wallace Stegner describe the effect of the hauntingly beautiful landscape of southern Utah. A very special part of that ecological and archaeological treasure is at the center of one of the most heated land disputes in the country.
The area in question comprises almost 2 million acres of remote canyons, high mountains and desert mesas known as Bears Ears, called such because of two prominent buttes.
A coalition of conservationists and 25 southwestern tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and Ute, are urging President Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect the area by designating it as a new national monument. This is the first time that Native Americans have collectively asked a president to create a national monument.
The Bears Ears region is adjacent to Canyonlands National Park and its breathtaking vistas were once considered for inclusion in that park. The terrain ranges in elevation from 3,700 feet to more than 11,300 feet and this significant elevation difference has caused a wonderland of erosional features such as natural bridges and arches, oasis like desert streams and a deep gorge of the Colorado River. I’ve wandered some of those magnificent red sandstone canyons and I felt as if I’d been transported into a magical world.
As wondrous as the natural landscape is, it is really the cultural landscape that begs for protection. Bears Ears is home to 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites. It has been called the “most significant unprotected archaeological area in the United States.” Native Americans have lived in the area for millennium and their villages from 1,000 years ago are still visible and relatively well preserved in the desert dryness. I remember hiking to a 1,000-year-old village on a cliff side and finding dwellings intact, corn cobs still in the houses and a turkey pen standing ready to contain birds. The structures are as impressive as you might find at Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon.
This is probably the largest and most remote unprotected natural area remaining in the lower 48, but both its amazing natural and archaeological wealth are under threat. Bears Ears has long been a target for looters and just last year, more than a dozen serious cases of desecration were reported. Examples of defilement include grave robbing, theft of artifacts and even the removal with rock saws of ancient cliff-side art panels.
The biggest threat is from fossil fuel companies that want to exploit tar sand, oil and gas deposits. Uranium and potash mining corporations also have their eyes on Bears Ears. Some politicians from the area are pushing to allow the energy and mining companies to have their way, regardless of their impact on the landscape and cultural resources. Republican congressmen have even gone so far as to use the threat of violence to try to stop the president from protecting the area.
Many of our most special places have been protected as national monuments under the Antiquities Act, first used by Teddy Roosevelt. In fact, four of the five national parks in Utah were originally saved as national monuments. President Obama has used this authority aggressively. He’s created 27 national monuments to protect key parts of our national natural and cultural heritage. The places he has protected will be an essential part of his legacy as president. He can enhance that legacy even further by protecting the threatened Bears Ears region. Future generations will thank him for preserving this amazing landscape and cultural treasure trove before it is further desecrated.
Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as the vice president of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.
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