National monuments protect meaning, not just landscapes

If Bears Ears shrinks, it will be to our national cultural detriment.


As the first light of sun saturates the Great Sage Plain in southeastern Utah, I run along a swath cut through the brush, where a gas-field pipeline runs. An owl alights from tree to tree ahead of me, and the air — still humid from last night’s rain — is redolent with the smell of sagebrush. An overgrown two-track veers off from the right of way, and I veer, too, following it south across a mesa, stretching my legs on the downhill.

I stagger to a stop at a cluster of rectangular sandstone blocks, rubble that once stood as a wall, sinking into the red earth. Potsherds — the rim of a bowl, the handle of a mug, polished by calloused hands or smooth stones some 800 years ago — are scattered abundantly. It is one of thousands of archaeological sites spread out across southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, sometimes called the northern San Juan or the Mesa Verde region, which includes the newly designated Bears Ears, as well as the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments.

This site — we’ll call it the Sagebrush Site — is like hundreds of others in the region, in that it is not part of a national monument, or park, or other special protected area. Instead, it’s on a Bureau of Land Management parcel that has been grazed, criss-crossed with de facto roads and drilled for oil and gas. It lies a couple dozen miles east of the outer edge of Bears Ears National Monument, yet it illustrates how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s proposal to shrink the new monument, while purportedly still protecting the “significant” cultural resources, is outdated, myopic and leaves important sites unprotected.

Part of an undisturbed midden with pot and tool fragments at an unnamed site in an unnamed canyon of Bears Ears National Monument.

In 1923, President Warren G. Harding wielded the Antiquities Act to establish Hovenweep National Monument in reaction to wholesale looting of the pueblos perched on the edges of canyons in the southeastern corner of Utah. “Few of the mounds have escaped the hands of the destroyer,” noted T. Mitchell Pruden in 1903. “Cattlemen, ranchmen, rural picnickers, and professional collectors have turned the ground well over and have taken out much pottery, breaking more, and strewing the ground with many crumbling bones.”

At the time, only the well-preserved, large structures were deemed worthy of protection, so even today Hovenweep is a mere 785 acres, divided up into six discrete “units” that include the spectacular towers and not much else. Left out of the monument were the Sagebrush Site, along with dozens of others like it, despite the fact that they were clearly associated with the Hovenweep towers. This was how the Antiquities Act was used back then to protect cultural resources. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt designated Chaco Canyon National Monument, which preserved “downtown” Chaco, while omitting many outlying great houses, prehistoric “roads” and large swaths of the greater Chaco landscape. In the years since, these places have been ravaged by wholesale oil and gas development.

Over time, our understanding of the Pueblo peoples’ connection to the landscape evolved, as did the way the Antiquities Act was implemented. In 2000, President Bill Clinton designated Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (just over the Colorado line from Hovenweep). Instead of targeting individual sites, it blanketed a relatively large swath of landscape. “Canyons of the Ancients was perhaps the first to explicitly recognize that ruins do not tell the entire story,” says Bruce Babbitt, Clinton’s Interior secretary at the time. “That ancients lived in, hunted, gathered and raised crops, and developed water and religious sites throughout the larger landscape.” This ethos was taken to another level when President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument 16 years later. 

Zinke has kept his monument review secret from the public, so we don’t know exactly what he has in mind for Bears Ears. But he has signaled that he’d like to significantly reduce the size of the monument, perhaps by as much as 1.2 million acres, and focus the designation on what he has determined to be the most important cultural sites, such as larger, well-preserved dwellings and significant rock art panels. This would be like slicing up Yellowstone National Park into small units, one for Old Faithful, one for Yellowstone Falls and so forth.

Places like the Sagebrush Site, which are likewise abundant within the Bears Ears monument, would probably not qualify. The site is subtle, the relatively small pile of rubble indicating that it was not a full-blown pueblo or year-round dwelling, but rather a smaller version of the nearby Hovenweep towers. Every potsherd I see is decorated with elaborate corrugation or black-on-white paint, suggesting that these weren’t just functional vessels, that this is more than a shelter where someone could take a break from working in the fields. Perhaps it was a ceremonial shrine.

Someone carefully considered this precise spot, perhaps because it falls on the line stretching from the eastern Bears Ears butte to the peak of Ute Mountain. Someone took the time to hew the stones, to mix the adobe, to carefully place one upon the other. People visited here, perhaps made offerings, for a century or more. This structure had meaning. It still does.

Because the Sagebrush Site is on federal land, it is protected by the Antiquities Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and sundry other laws. If someone were caught pocketing any of these potsherds, he might end up in jail. If an oil company wanted to drill here, it would need to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The company would pay for an archaeological survey, and if this site were deemed to be “significant,” the well pad would need to be moved away from it. It’s known in the business as “identify and avoid.”

Many well-meaning folks — and some with more cynical aims — argue that a national monument designation for Bears Ears is unnecessary because it already has these multiple levels of protection.

But someone could dig up the Sagebrush Site in broad daylight and cart away backpacks full of artifacts, possibly with impunity, since BLM rangers, stretched so thin out here, probably never venture down this little, old road. On the rare occasion that the feds are able to find pothunters, and try to bring the perpetrators to justice, they are met with stiff local resistance, as was the case in 1986 and 2009 in Blanding, Utah. When BLM officials close roads that run through sensitive archaeological sites — as they did in 2007 in Recapture Canyon, also near Blanding — the local Sagebrush Rebels, the same ones that claim to be able to protect public land on their own, go ballistic. The Monticello Field Office has been berated endlessly by locals, and one county commissioner even went to jail after leading a motorized, armed protest down Recapture Canyon in 2014.

Meanwhile, identify-and-avoid works to keep drill rigs off of prominent cultural sites, but it does little to protect the surrounding context — shrines, prehistoric “roads,” constructed swales, ancient corn fields and other components of the cultural landscape that may not be visible to the contractors hired by the developers. Oilfield roads, well pads and pipelines fragment the natural as well as the cultural landscape, thus shattering the whole, and obscuring the larger meaning.

National monument status doesn’t provide any guarantees of greater protection, by any means. Yet even in cases like Canyons of the Ancients, where energy development and grazing continue, monument designation has shifted the BLM’s top priority, from accommodating multiple uses, to protecting the resources. This gives them more leverage to push development away from entire swaths of culturally valuable land, and to close trails or roads if necessary.

With the tug-of-war over its future status raging, the Bears Ears National Monument is a monument in name only — without a management plan, it’s not getting any more protection, just more visitors and impacts. Yet even there, the designation itself, and the vast amount of acreage it encompassed, acknowledged that the “significant” archaeological sites need the surrounding landscape, both cultural and natural, to give them meaning. Hacking up and shrinking the new monument would be done in blindness to this knowledge, and take us back to the myopic approach of a century ago. That is why the tribal nations that pushed for the original designation are prepared to fight any effort to shrink the new monument.

I leave the Sagebrush Site and continue south, jogging slowly now so as not to miss any other artifacts. Out to the west, a single pumpjack sits stoically against the sky like the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex, or perhaps a giant grasshopper, poised to leap. The detritus of humankind is scattered across this lonely landscape, but I could keep running for another five, ten, maybe twenty miles and see no one save a lizard or two, a laughing raven, a feral horse. It’s a good feeling.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is currently writing a book about the Gold King Mine spill.

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