By Winston Hurst
The spectacular geography and well-preserved archaeological remains surrounding the Bears Ears buttes inspire worldwide awe and are of great value to humankind. They should be carefully tended, conserved and protected against short-sighted, destructive developments and excessive trampling by herds of GPS-packing, Internet-educated, checklist tourists attracted by the marketing campaigns of tourismo-pimps and profiteering promoters.
I am a career archaeologist who grew up physically, mentally and spiritually on the landscape around Bears Ears, and it has molded every aspect of who I am. It is where I choose to live above all other places. I cherish it beyond words, and my entire adult life has been devoted to trying to get people to appreciate and protect it. It has therefore come as a small disappointment to the promoters of a Bears Ears National Monument designation that I have not climbed on board their crusade.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with monument status, if it is organically rooted in local sentiment (though, full disclosure: National Parks and Monuments, with their artificially-imposed stasis and paved trails, are unfriendly, sterile places to me). And it’s not that I have knuckled under or sold out to the massive local opposition to monument designation. The problem I have is with the top-down process. Executively-proclaimed monuments feed and reinforce an increasingly dangerous and destructive right-wing, anti-federal narrative that is growing and threatens to undo every gain we have made in a half-century of active efforts to protect the family jewels in the American West.
In our desperation to save our treasures while something remains to be saved, we on the protectionist side have repeatedly done an end run around the local populations who are most powerfully positioned to protect the land or abuse it. We have avoided the hard, slow, complicated slog of cultivating the hearts and minds of country pragmatists who still have one foot and half their heart in the wild development frenzy of the American western frontier. We chose instead to take an expedient shortcut directly to the power. It was seductively easier and faster to get the powerful few to impose top-down rules and sanctions onto the people who lived and sweated out a livelihood on the land.
But every top-down law, rule, and heavy-handed anti-looting operation has fed an old, visceral, cherished Western distrust of government and done much to inflame anti-protection sentiments. This has huge potential for destructive blowback. Our protectionist victories have been powerful gifts to the cheerleaders of the political right, driving a wedge ever more deeply between grassroots communities in the rural West and the advocates for landscape protection. Now it is too easy for the bullhorns on the far right to make archaeology and environment into symbols of evil.
Despite winning battle after battle, we stand on the verge of losing the war. In 2016, after five decades of preservation efforts, I find most of the people in my hometown (the closest town to the proposed monument) less willing than ever before to become positively engaged in archaeology. They have come to equate it so directly with intrusive federal government and political liberalism that even civil discussion about it feels like an implicit concession to the left. It will take decades to undo this attitude that has been so hardened — if we ever can.
One more top-down monument designation by a liberal President might be just the thing to tip this conservative state into a full-on, full-court-press effort to roll back government to something resembling the unbalanced, bulldoze-everything attitudes of the early 20th century. In their deep hearts, I fear the right-wing pack leaders are hoping for it.
Then there are other concerns that I won’t even go into: increased visitation resulting from all the pro-con publicity, with little real hope for a commensurate increase in management resources even if the monument is designated; the real issue of whether more intensive management would actually be an asset or a liability to the soul of the place; and the intractable Gordian knot of management by a committee of multiple federal agencies and a half-dozen sovereign Native nations who have never been all that friendly with each other.
Please, Lord (and President Obama), protect us from our self-proclaimed saviors on both sides.
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Responding to Not On Board With the Bears Ears Crusade
Even though Mr. Hurst begins by imagining a cartoon character tourist, he makes thoughtful observations. I disagree with his conclusions.
Blanding is not the community nearest the proposed Bears Ears Monument. Bluff and White Mesa are. Bluff overwhelmingly supports designation of the existing public/federal land as a Monument. As do the White Mesa Utes. As do all but one of the 110 Navajo chapter houses. As do the the descendents of the Ancestral Puebloans. The locals are far from being uniformly against the Monument. Settling an issue in deference to what only a fraction of the small, local population wants is not good policy for public lands or for America.
The overriding problem is that the present system is not working. It does not contain the protections that Monument designation would provide. As Mr. Hurst, to his credit, has long recognized, the thousands of Native American sites and the historic Mormon sites are being steadily destroyed through looting, energy extraction (think drilling and fracking), overgrazing, tourism, and thoughtless offroad damage caused by a small minority of the quad running enthusiasts.
There is this long running, selfish thought that being lucky enough to live near public lands means that you get to control the use of that area, even to the detriment of the public. Public land means control belongs to all Americans, not just the people lucky enough to live nearby. This thought runs counter to our being the United States of America. We are not just an isolated community with no responsibility to the rest of our Country.
Mr. Hurst believes that the way forward is to accede to the right wing in the hopes that somehow a non-liberal president will convince the right wing to become reasonable, and that this area will then be recognized for what it is and preserved. My thought is that we need to engage head on with the forces promoting this turning of our public land to their private uses/abuses. Time is running out to preserve this area. As the last eight years have demonstrated, the right wing is not open to give and take discussions. Even if its intransigence takes our country down.
It is beyond dispute that change is coming to San Juan County. More tourists, more off road vehicles, more extractive industry, more development. We need to be able to exercise some control over that change. Monument designation will not be a cure all. But it is our best , and most likely, only hope.
The local communities on both sides of this dispute have the same love of this area. Our differences lie in how best to preserve it. We need to respect each other, but we also have to make changes to avoid being swept aside by the flood approaching us.
Responding to Not On Board With the Bears Ears Crusade
Winston is the foremost archaeologist in southeastern Utah. I have enormous respect and gratitude for his work to document and understand this cultural landscape. I can relate to his questioning of government as being the only solution. And I can understand his desire to not have a Monument further divide our community.
However, I am disappointed he chooses to disparage well intentioned locals working in good faith to try to protect this landscape from numerous real threats by supporting the Monument as our last resort, after other efforts (e.g. the PLI) have failed. Just documenting these sites doesn't protect them. It's incumbent on those of us who want to see these resources endure to have practical solutions. No solutions are perfect, but the status quo is clearly failing. These lands are important to all Americans and particularly Native American decedents of those who inhabited the area and created all the archaeology Winston loves. To allow some locals who are against anything done by the federal government to have the only say would be irresponsible.
Rather than provide any sort of real plan as an alternative to a Monument, Winston argues that we should just stand by and watch destruction while trying “win hearts and minds” of locals. He admits this could take generations, if it is indeed possible to get some folks to see the land as something to nurture rather than profit from. More importantly, his argument assumes it's locals doing the most damage. I argue our largest issue is educating, managing, and directing visitors from outside of San Juan County. Winning hearts and minds of locals does little to address this issue, while resources and a Monument management plan could help us create real strategies for directing visitors in ways that will minimize impacts. Letting Google continue to manage this area by default isn't a viable strategy.
I hope Winston's great sense of humor will allow him to chuckle at my concluding line: God save us from cynical archaeologists whose solution is to stick our head in the desert sand and do nothing!