A national monument is a heavy-handed solution for Bears Ears

More protection for these lands would mean more regulation and less freedom.


The Bears Ears, far out on the horizon, as seen looking southward from near Canyonlands National Park.
JT Thomas

There’s a whale about to be dropped on the desert of Utah. Not a live animal, but a system, a mindset. Since Thomas Hobbes wrote his famous book in 1651, “leviathan”— the word means “sea monster” in Hebrew — has come to signify anything large, unwieldy and dominant. The beast in question here combines government regulation, mass tourism and modern disenchantment. It is a proposed national monument, bigger than the state of Delaware, and once it plops onto this fragile terrain, people in the surrounding communities fear what the splash may bring.

I grew up ranching this land. We liked to think southeastern Utah was just God showing off. From atop my horse I could tell this place had won the geological lottery. Water, sandstone and a thousand other elements joined to form canyons, arches, hoodoos, monoliths and towers. Pink and red and orange and white. Sharp, round, soft. Cliff dwellings hang in the sky and haunt the imagination. Voices from other worlds, other times, breathe through every crack and cave. Two capped buttes overlook this sweep, giving the proposed monument its name: “Bears Ears.”

According to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, the Obama administration wishes to protect the 1.9-million-acre expanse around Bears Ears, one way or another, before the president leaves office. If necessary, the administration may forego a congressional vote and declare a monument, resorting to the Antiquities Act. It is supported in this initiative by environmental groups, philanthropic foundations, outdoor retailers and a coalition of Native American tribes from Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

Others are inclined to resist federal absorption on this scale. After all, much of San Juan County is already owned by the federal government. As an alternative, Utah congressmen have proposed the Public Lands Initiative, which would set aside 1.4 million acres as a national conservation area. The conservation area is a locally driven process designed to balance the interests of ranchers, energy developers, environmentalists, hikers and tribes. It would loosen and narrow the control of the federal government, whereas a monument would tighten and broaden it.

Both sides clearly love this land. The intentions of the monument proposal are noble, but the reality is complex. Though it aims to protect sacred space and preserve archaeological sites, a monument would actually tame the wild, overrun the spiritual, enforce webs of rules and fees, bring busloads of tourists, trivialize landmarks through ad campaigns, cater to those with the means to recreate, and fine people for straying from a trail. To maintain this regime, management has to partition, cordon and monetize what was once mysterious.

Are we overrunning the land in the name of saving it?

Chris Lee of Blanding uses a chainsaw, while Tamara Cordasco of Monticello carries away heavy chunks of wood for splitting, during a firewood-collecting day on Elk Ridge in October. The two were part of a group of LDS church members who grew up in the area and camp, hunt and gather wood here. They all oppose a Bears Ears National Monument designation.
JT Thomas

Never underestimate irony. In 1996, President Bill Clinton designated nearly 2 million acres in nearby Garfield County, Utah. During the last 20 years, vandalism has increased at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In 2015 alone, 1,400 cases of rock defacement were documented. In comparison, 25 cases of vandalism were documented in the Bears Ears area between 2011 and 2016. Increased visitation has led to greater deterioration of archaeological and geological resources in Utah’s national parks.

The problem is one of scale. As ranchers, we understood the connection between scale and stewardship. The size of a herd, the use of a pasture, the distribution of water had to bend to the limits of the environment. But the sheer size of this monument complicates stewardship, for everyone. Instead of a land that is parceled among many groups of stewards, the area becomes a single space governed by a single entity. And what it lacks in manpower it will make up for in regulations.

Not even minimal improvements to the land, such as planting grass, clearing small areas of brush and trees, grading roads, or cleaning ponds and springs, will be allowed. A monument designation will implement a new travel-management planning process to decide which roads and sites may be accessed. Native Americans will be able to gather wood, nuts and ceremonial herbs only from approved roads.

Though existing grazing and mineral rights will be preserved, the logic of regulation tends toward its own growth. Again, the experience of Garfield County is instructive. Since the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, grazing has decreased by 31 percent, mineral extraction has been restricted, and the county recently had to declare an economic state of emergency. Regulated out of viability. Tourists come for a season, but residents are relocating for good.

If Bears Ears must be designated a national monument, then a more natural, manageable size for it would be a quarter of what is proposed. The real jewels of the area are the canyons and ruins of Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa. If this were the extent of the proposal, more locals could stomach it. But the proposed boundaries violate all sense of proportion, swallowing two whole mountain ranges, huge swaths of rangeland, Native land allotments, and watersheds of entire towns. The Park Service already has a deferred maintenance backlog of $12 billion. How can it manage still more?

In rural life, there’s a human scale, too. People work with people they know. Everyone has a family, a history, and, for better or worse, a reputation. Park rangers are cordial but largely unknown entities, rotating in and out. Relationships break and heal, hearts listen and learn, only when the social scope is small. A bigger land boss from Washington would disrupt this exchange by elevating itself as the arbiter. Rural folks see themselves as actors shaping the world around them, not spectators watching things happen.

This small scope is crucial for a place of complex cultural intersection. Despite difficulties and hard feelings, the communities of Navajos, Utes and Anglos have coexisted in this county for over a century. Most oppose the monument designation, preferring the more responsive conservation area or even the status quo. Unilateral designations reinforce an unequal power dynamic between government and people. Regulating from afar breeds mistrust and undermines the promise of democracy.

All of this is the face of the modern leviathan.

Writer and conservationist Wallace Stegner once described the West as the “geography of hope,” a place where people could learn to live within the limits of a land that is so easily scarred. But he later despaired at the monstrous scale of Western development. The dry land beyond the 100th meridian, he said, is simply not made for mass living, or mass visiting for that matter. He lamented the excesses of mining, real estate and technology.

But government also facilitates excesses — the overcrowding of commercial tourism and the disenchantment of sacred space.

Tagging along with my father, I saw different people pursuing different courses. Cowboys and land managers negotiated grazing patterns. The Utes’ cows got in our pastures, and our cows got in theirs. Tourists from overseas talked with us and took our pictures. Scientists studied the impact of our cattle. Archaeologists guarded their secrets. Hikers waved to us and spooked our herds. Hunters wished us out of their way. Mining and drilling were accepted as long as they stayed away from the beautiful parts.

We all clashed, but everything seemed to work out. Now I wonder how the whale will alter this delicate balance. 

Nathan Nielson is a graduate of the Great Books program of St. John’s College, currently resides in Utah, and grew up ranching and exploring the wild lands of the Four Corners region. This essay was first published on firstthings.com.

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