In Utah, the fight for a Bears Ears monument heats up

In a place where history, culture and geography intermingle, ‘local’ can be hard to define.


In mid-October, the clouds over southeastern Utah loomed cobalt blue behind the glowing pink sandstone cliffs that overlook the San Juan River, on the edge of the little hamlet of Bluff. It was only seven in the morning, but Mark Maryboy was already waiting for me when I arrived at the Twin Rocks cafe on the edge of town.

Maryboy — long a community organizer, activist and leader among the Utah Navajos here in San Juan County — is tall and lean with broad shoulders, a light handshake and dark, thick hair salted with white. He seemed to be in a mixed mood. Just days earlier, five Native American tribes had formally asked President Barack Obama to designate a 1.9 million-acre swath of the canyon-wrinkled land nearby as the Bears Ears National Monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Maryboy had helped launch the local effort to preserve the area, and now it had the collective voice of two-dozen tribal governments behind it, as well as the endorsement of the National Congress of American Indians, which seemed enough to give the president the final push toward designation.

Yet there was a hitch. Even as the tribal representatives presented their proposal in Washington, Navajos from the Aneth Chapter in San Juan County were declaring their opposition to the proposal. Though the pushback was coming from just one of seven Navajo chapters in San Juan County, some headlines played it as if outside forces were imposing their monument proposal on universally reticent “local, grassroots Navajo.”

The attacks were especially bruising for Maryboy, who once represented Aneth on the Navajo tribal council and fought for the chapter’s interests as a San Juan County commissioner. Even more disappointing, current San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally — once Maryboy’s ally in facing down exploitative oil companies here — led the opposition.

Over the six months since, the tribal coalition has gained momentum, gathering support from tribes and politicians, as well as a valuable endorsement from the editorial board of the Salt Lake Tribune. In an April speech, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the Antiquities Act a valuable tool and seemed to be speaking of the Bears Ears proposal specifically when she said: “I do not think the (Antiquities) Act should only be used in places where there is complete agreement, as some are suggesting.”

The opponents, meanwhile, including Benally, Utah State Rep. Mike Noel and others, have grown increasingly strident in their opposition. They’ve gone so far as to allege that tribal proponents were manipulated by “deep-pocketed,” out-of-state environmental groups, and to question whether tribes like the Hopi and Zuni — ancestral ties aside — have a right to participate in the process. “I am not sure where the Bears Ears proposal was created,” wrote Bill Boyle, editor of the San Juan Record, “but I know it was not in San Juan County.”

Opponents of monument designation have framed the fight as one pitting locals against non-locals. But in a place like San Juan County, the notion of “local” and “outsider” is rather murky, and the answer to the question of who gets a place at the land management table is anything but clear cut.

Looking south from Upper Comb Ridge.
Jonathan Thompson

The iconic Bears Ears 9,000-foot twin buttes, studded with ponderosas and aspen  rise above Elk Ridge. They are visible from most of the Four Corners region and mark a remote and spectacular landscape. To the south, the canyon-cut Cedar Mesa sprawls out to its sharp edge, overlooking the San Juan River; to the west, the aptly named Dark Canyon drops from low mountains to the Cataract Canyon of the Colorado River; and the sandstone walls of Arch Canyon, its high nooks and crannies filled with cliff dwellings, reach eastward to Comb Wash, itself overlooked by the vast sandstone wave known as Comb Ridge.

The first human settlement of this corner of Utah probably began around 1,000 BC. For the next two millennia, people built homes and formed communities, captured rainwater to irrigate their fields and hunted on the high plateaus. These waves of people came and went, their culture and architecture evolving, moving their homes from mesa tops to the cliffs, and from Cedar Mesa to some other area and then back again. Finally, beginning in the 1100s, the people gradually migrated to the south and east, eventually landing on the Hopi mesas, in Zuni and in the pueblos along the Rio Grande. But they never “abandoned” Cedar Mesa and many still consider it their homeland, regardless of state, county or reservation lines. “We hope to go to Bears Ears to learn,” said Jim Enote, a Zuni, at one of the Bears Ears coalition’s formative meetings. “Our history lies within the landscape, and when we go there we find missing chapters of our book.”

The Puebloans were followed by the Utes, who included the high mesas and canyons here in their seasonal rounds in the 1500s or earlier, and then the Navajo. In 1864, when U.S. soldiers forced thousands of Navajos to make the horrific Long Walk to Fort Sumner in southern New Mexico, many found sanctuary in southern Utah. Among those was K’aayelii, born near the Bears Ears, who led a group of followers back to his birthplace, never surrendering.

The strip of Utah south of the San Juan River was added to the Navajo reservation in the 1880s. A decade later, when the U.S. government tried to push Utes onto allotments on what is now the Southern Ute reservation in Colorado, many resisted, holing up instead on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in the far southwest corner of the state. An offshoot of that group settled further west, in Utah, eventually forming the community of White Mesa, just south of Blanding, and now officially part of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation.

Today, about one-quarter of the New Jersey-sized San Juan County is Navajo Nation land, with another 13,000 acres of Ute Mountain Ute land. More than half of the county’s 15,000 residents are Native Americans, though you’d never know it, given the dominance of the descendants of white Mormon pioneers who came via the Hole-in-the-Rock trail to settle Bluff in 1880.

Maryboy was born at the St. Christopher’s Mission, just upstream from Bluff, in 1955, and would go on to challenge that dominance. He grew up in a hogan and, after running away from boarding school, attended local public schools. As a teenager, he began advocating for Cedar Mesa’s protection from uranium mining, extreme pot hunting and looting and other impacts. After attending the University of Utah, he returned home and embarked on a life of community organizing and politics. He was elected Utah’s first Native American county commissioner in 1987.

By that time, San Juan County was already a prime battleground in the Western land wars. The majority of land in the county is federally managed, and locals had long had almost unrestrained freedom there to graze cows, build roads, stake uranium mining claims and collect ancient artifacts — a sort of community hobby. So they balked when bureaucrats from Washington — colonizers, in the words of the late county commissioner and sagebrush rebel Cal Black — tried to impinge on those freedoms by kicking cows or vehicles off the land or otherwise “protecting” it.

Black helped launch the 1970s version of the Sagebrush Rebellion, and it flared up again in 1986 after the Blanding homes of suspected pothunters were raided by federal agents using, as Black put it, “gestapo” tactics. Meanwhile, environmentalists, with Maryboy’s support, were pushing for wilderness designation for various Utah Bureau of Land Management lands, including on and near Cedar Mesa. The mayor of Blanding at the time, Jim Shumway, responded with a threat of armed resistance. “We will give no more lands,” he said. “We are tired of the wilderness terrorists.”

The Shumways and Blacks mostly won those earlier battles. While there are a handful of primitive areas and wilderness study areas in the region, most of the land remains relatively unprotected.

  • Abajos

    Abajo Mountains from Comb Ridge. The mountain range would be included in a Bears Ears National Monument.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Lower Comb Ridge looking north into what may someday be the Bears Ears National Monument.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Cliff dwelling within the proposed Bears Ears National Monument.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Comb Wash, which marks the eastern edge of Cedar Mesa.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • White Mesa uranium mill as seen from Comb Ridge. Mesa Verde and Ute Mountain are in the background.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Water-worn sandstone on Comb Ridge.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Bears Ears Coalition proposal (outlined in red) vs. the San Juan County Public Lands Initiative proposal* (blue=NCAs, purple=wilderness).

  • Off-road vehicle tracks across cryptobiotic soil on upper Comb Ridge. Despite the fact that there are hundreds of roads and motorized trails in the area, some OHVers can't seem to stay on them.

    Jonathan Thompson

In 2009, federal agents again descended on Blanding in pursuit of suspected pothunters. Two of the suspects — including prominent local doctor James Redd — would commit suicide shortly thereafter, leading locals again to charge that the feds had acted too heavy-handedly (Redd’s family sued the BLM for use of excessive force, but the case was dismissed earlier this year). Just months later, a “secret” Obama administration list of places under consideration for national monument designation under the Antiquities Act surfaced, with Cedar Mesa included. It was enough to spark yet another local rebellion. Incidences of pothunting and looting shot up at around the same time, apparently a reaction to the perceived federal incursion.

In hopes of easing tensions, in 2010 then-Sen. Bob Bennett, a moderate Utah Republican, began a citizen-led process that could result in new wilderness for canyon country, similar to the deal he had helped broker in the southwest corner of the state. A group of local Navajos, including Maryboy, informally created Utah Dine Bikeyah, a group advocating increased protections, to ensure that the Utah Navajos would have a voice in the process. Bennett lost in the primary that year to the Tea Partier Mike Lee, killing prospects for a deal. But Utah Dine Bikeyah continued working for protection, getting the endorsement of the Navajo Nation and all seven Utah Navajo chapters, publishing a book about Navajo ties to the land and formally incorporating as a non-profit. When Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, launched his Public Lands Initiative (PLI) in 2013, hoping to settle Utah’s land conflicts with local-led compromises, Bikeyah was ready.

The county formed a citizens’ lands council to negotiate a proposal for the initiative, with Maryboy representing Bikeyah. But Bikeyah members, feeling ignored by both the local group and the congressmen, grew disillusioned. Besides, no matter how strong a proposal the local group came up with, it would be at the mercy of a notoriously dysfunctional congress, that may never even vote on it. Rather than an attempt to achieve what Bishop called a “grand bargain,” the PLI process began to look like a tactic to ward off monument designation. The sentiment grew darker in May 2014 when San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman — the lands council chairman — led an ATV protest ride down Recapture Canyon, which the BLM had closed to motorized vehicles to protect archaeological resources. “I was very offended,” says Maryboy. “I wonder how he’d feel if I went to the Blanding Cemetery and led a posse over their graves?”

So Bikeyah decided to lobby the president directly, getting support from other tribes with ties to the region. In July of 2015, leadership was chosen for the inter-tribal coalition, which includes Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute and Uintah-Ouray Utes, and Bikeyah handed off the effort to the larger group. On October 15 representatives from the five tribes formally announced their Bears Ears National Monument proposal at the National Press Club in Washington.

The proposal is notable for the amount of land it includes (all currently under federal management), which is almost identical to that covered by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by then-President Bill Clinton in 1996 in southwestern Utah. The proposed management structure is truly groundbreaking: A monument manager would be overseen by a commission, made up of one representative from each of the five tribes, and one from each of the three applicable federal agencies, the U.S. Forest Service, BLM and National Park Service. Not only will that give tribes an unprecedented amount of control over a national monument, but it will give people who are not federal bureaucrats, all or some of them local (depending on your definition of the term), more control over the land than they have now.

One might expect local-control advocates to be delighted. They are not. At a Utah Commission for the Stewardship for Public Lands meeting on April 20, most of the state legislators were downright hostile toward monument supporters. They again framed the fight in terms of their idea of “locals” — meaning Utahns and San Juan County residents — vs. “outsiders” — meaning everyone else, even if they have deep roots in southeast Utah. One lawmaker cut off in mid-speech tribal coalition Co-Chair Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal council member, implying that even she had no say in the matter, despite the fact that the tribe’s reservation extends into San Juan County.

Benally was there to egg on the lawmakers. She said she supports protection of the land — even wilderness designation for the Bears Ears, themselves — but not a monument, which would be “devastation.” “My people do not want a national monument,” she said, “they want continued access … for medicinal plant gathering and wood gathering.” (The coalition’s monument proposal clearly states that such activities would remain unimpeded).

Benally indicated that tribal coalition members only support the monument because they have been influenced by “intimidation, harassment, bullying and the tactic of divide and conquer” by “deep-pocketed outside groups outside of San Juan County who probably don’t even know where Bears Ears butte is.” While six of the seven Utah Navajo chapters continue to support the Bears Ears proposal, as do the two Utah delegates to the Navajo tribal council, the Aneth chapter voted last August to oppose it. Benally has said she prefers the compromise hammered out by the Public Lands Initiative group.

Bears Ears Coalition proposal (outlined in red) vs. the San Juan County Public Lands Initiative proposal* (blue=NCAs, purple=wilderness).

The PLI proposal San Juan County sent to Bishop includes protections on 945,389 acres*, half of what the proposed monument covers, in the form of a handful of small wilderness areas, most of which are currently wilderness study areas, and two national conservation areas, or NCA, one on Cedar Mesa and one in Indian Creek, a popular climbing area adjacent to the Needles District of Canyonlands. The Cedar Mesa NCA would be managed collaboratively by federal agencies, the state, the county and the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute tribes. An NCA doesn’t inherently bring with it more or less restriction than a national monument, but the differences in management structure between the PLI and tribal coalition proposals would almost certainly result in divergences.

For monument supporters, though, the mode of protection is less critical than what is actually protected. The county's PLI proposal offers no protection to much of Butler, Cottonwood or upper Comb washes, nor to the archaeological sites or spectacular rock art panels there. It leaves lower Arch Canyon, with its perennial stream and endangered fish, vulnerable to motorized use. Most of White Canyon and some of its tributaries, designated as a “special tar sands area” by the BLM several years ago, are included in the proposal’s “energy zone,” where development would be expedited. “This group from Aneth should realize that if it’s not protected,” says Maryboy, these places may suffer the same fate as the lands in the Aneth Oil Field, which have been industrialized, overrun by oil and gas workers and had the springs tainted by more than 50 years of intense development.

After breakfast with Maryboy I headed north, ending up on the old road that once took travelers from Blanding to the mostly un-peopled western side of the county. It was, my parents tell me, a slow and sometimes treacherous journey, serving to keep Cedar Mesa relatively secret to outsiders. Then, in the 1960s and early 70s, the highway was straightened, widened, smoothed and a gorge blasted through Comb Ridge (a moment captured in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang). Abbey’s descriptions of the place drew the masses, the new highway paving the way for the latest in many invasions.

I pulled off the gravel road near a high point on upper Comb Ridge and set up camp in a place that would be included within the proposed Bears Ears National Monument, but would not fall within the county’s proposed National Conservation Area. Opponents of monument designation have often said, quite understandably, that they just want things to “stay as they are” out here. It’s not clear, though, that either the NCA or the monument would really change much. At the outset, the monument would not close any roads, limit wood- or herb-gathering or hunting, or even limit camping. But it would most likely draw more funding for enforcement against abuses such as looting or off-trail motorized vehicle use.

Heavy rains had washed over the region, leaving the air so clean and the light so vivid that it felt as if I could almost reach out and touch Ute Mountain, over in Colorado, and Dibé Nitsaa, the Navajo sacred peak of the north beyond that. A grey curtain of rain hung from a cloud over the ominously dark Carrizo Mountains in Arizona, and I could even make out the low silhouette of Black Mesa, long plundered for its coal, rising up from the desert near Kayenta.

From my lofty perch I could take in most of the Four Corners country. That locals want a say in what happens in their backyard makes sense. But in a place like this, where the ties of history, culture and geography easily outweigh the arbitrary confines of a surveyor’s lines drawn blindly across the landscape, the notion of “local” transcends county and state boundaries.

“We want to try something a little different,” said Lopez-Whiteskunk, “not for the sake of selfishness, but for the sake of healing all people. We all have to come together and … reach beyond the state boundaries and reservation lines.”

*Update: After the county sent its PLI proposal to the Utah congressional delegation, the delegation enlarged the boundaries of the proposed NCAs by about 100,000 acres. The enlarged boundaries would include Arch Canyon and upper Comb Wash, but still do not include White Canyon, Cottonwood Wash and other sensitive and archaeologically rich areas. 

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. 

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