Efforts to save Utah's Cedar Mesa reach a crescendo

Conflicting county and state proposals would provide various levels of protection.


The gnats and mosquitos were out in force that mid-June evening at our campsite, as was the Indian paintbrush, the penstemon, globe mallow and other wildflowers whose names I don’t know. The long day’s last light slowly ran its fingers down the sinewy sandstone wave of Comb Ridge to the east, but the June heat persisted. My family and I had just spent several days in the canyons of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, an area that is mostly new to me. Now we were on Cedar Mesa, a place in which I spent a good deal of my youth, and which is now one of the battlefields in the war over what should be done with federal lands in the West.

A flower and dead piñon near Fish Creek on Cedar Mesa.
Jonathan Thompson

We could see the La Plata Mountains, our “home” range, as well as Lone Cone and Mt. Wilson up by Telluride, a fact that amazed my two daughters. Then they started arguing, because they’re teenagers, about how long it would take to walk back to Durango: A week? Two? And they marveled at how small the world of the Ancestral Puebloans must have been, maybe never leaving this mesa during a lifetime.

Actually, I said, their world probably extended at least as far as our view. Out there, just beyond that dark nub known as Shiprock, lies Chaco Canyon. And up here on Cedar Mesa, there are several Chaco “outliers” — pueblos that were linked, by architecture, maybe even Chacoan “roads,” with the massive Great Houses in Chaco Canyon. It would only take a handful of signal fires atop strategically located stone towers to send a quick message from Chaco to here. And Puebloan ultra-runners surely could make the trip on foot in two days.

Comb Ridge, as seen from Cedar Mesa.
Jonathan Thompson

My family retreated behind the bug screen of the tent, but I stayed out in the swarm, sitting cross-legged on a rock, sipping the dregs of a box of wine and watching Earth’s shadow spread across mesa, canyon and the sage plains. The silence was remarkable, interrupted only by the occasional boom of a nighthawk. As stars and lights flickered on in the sky and on the distant landscape, this hardly seemed like a place that’s being “loved to death,” nor one that was in need of protection from industrial invasion. But it is arguably both.

For me — and many others — this is personal. My father became aware of Cedar Mesa back when he was growing up in Dolores, Colorado, not far to the east. After that, he came here often, seeking solitude or solace, archaeological sites or hidden pools amongst stone and sage, bringing his family along. As such, it became an important part of my individual creation myth: My earliest memories are of running around on slickrock with my brother, of the smell of piñon burning in the campfire, of seemingly brutal hikes to cliff dwellings nestled high up in a canyon wall. Later, my friends and I headed to Cedar Mesa whenever we got a chance, backpacking into the canyons that didn’t make it into the guidebooks, sometimes getting into trouble in the process — the fodder of stories we still tell today. The area lacked the drama of Canyonlands, but that made it more special.

Looking toward Cedar Mesa and the Bears Ears from the Henry Mountains.
Jonathan Thompson

My father was a writer, and Cedar Mesa was often his subject. But he always adhered to an ethic of secrecy, never revealing precisely where it is he wrote about. To do so exposes hidden places, while also robbing folks of the joy of discovery. That ethic has long since perished, killed by Google and blogs, YouTube and Facebook. GPS coordinates of Ancestral Puebloan sites can be found with the flick of a mouse, drawing looters and potsherd-hunters, alike. Websites give precise directions to and detailed descriptions of those canyons that were once blank spots on the guidebooks’ maps, turning even short segments of slots into playgrounds for “canyoneers.” 

Archaeological sites that were largely ignored for years are now written up by travel writers from the LA Times and other national media. ATV trails have been cut where once were only walking paths. And a designated tar sands area lies under spectacular canyons a couple dozen miles west of where I sat.

Environmentalists, historic preservationists and Native American groups have long fought to preserve what’s left, with efforts reaching a crescendo over the last couple of years. Friends of Cedar Mesa, Utah Diné Bikéyah, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and others recently joined up as the Bears Ears Coalition. (The Bears Ears are two buttes that overlook Cedar Mesa and a regional landmark). They’ve proposed putting a huge swath of land, stretching from the San Juan River in the south, encompassing the Abajo Mountains to the north, and reaching almost to Lake Powell in the west, into a national conservation area, with various areas within protected as Wilderness. Under the Diné Bikéyah proposal — which has the support of the Navajo Nation government — the southern portion would be co-managed by the tribe and the feds, in a way similar to Cañon de Chelly in Arizona.

Looking off the edge of Cedar Mesa, down the Moki Dugway road toward Monument Valley.
Jonathan Thompson

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative is attempting to meld the above vision with those of motorized vehicle advocates and state- and county-rights ideologues. Cedar Mesa and surrounding federal lands are in San Juan County, Utah, which has historically resisted federal land agencies. It was the site, last spring, of the Recapture Canyon ATV protest, led by county commissioner Phil Lyman who was recently convicted of federal misdemeanors for the protest. To counter the Bears Ears Coalition, the San Juan Alliance — an ad hoc local group that is decidedly opposed to federal control of their backyard  proposed turning over all BLM and National Park Service land to the state and to the county (e.g. “Canyonlands State Park”).

The same week that I sat on Cedar Mesa and contemplated the landscape in question, the San Juan County Lands Council, which includes Lyman and representatives from the Bears Ears Coalition, sent off its compromise proposal to Bishop. While its protections are not nearly as widespread or as robust as those proposed by the Bears Ears Coalition, it does include about a half-million acres of wilderness and was enough to anger the anti-federal land folks.

“This will negatively affect the San Juan County cattle and recreation industries and give the federal government even more control over this county,” wrote Monte Wells — who was convicted along with Lyman — on his ThePetroglyph.com Facebook page. “If the county doesn't oppose this entire bill we should thank them and the state for failing to protect our God-given individual rights.”

That any of these proposals will be adopted as written is unlikely. But they will surely be used as guides for Bishop and others in congress as they craft Wilderness and other land bills, and by the Obama administration as it considers using executive order to create a national monument here. Less certain is what impact any such designation might have. The abuse of the past — huge swaths of forest “chained” in a futile attempt to create grazing areas, countless roads built to access uranium mines, off-road-vehicle trails spiderwebbing through delicate ecosystems, decades of cattle grazing and pot hunting — can’t be reversed. Meanwhile, monument or wilderness designation will just draw more attention, and visitors, potentially exacerbating the “loved to death” phenomenon.

As Earth’s shadow spread across the land that night, I left my perch on the rock and headed toward the tent, ambivalent about these efforts to protect this place. But that ambivalence vanished when I noticed an odd silhouette protruding unnaturally above the shadows of the forest. It was an exploratory oil drilling rig, on the other side of the canyon, on land abutting a Wilderness Study Area.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News. 

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