Bears Ears Broadwalk

by Carol Savonen, Willamette Valley, Oregon Broadband Co-Leader

 

Last September, about 60 of us, most more than 60 years old, gathered for five days in a remote meadow in the southeast corner of Utah to work, learn, explore, and advocate for the proposed Bears Ears National Monument. All avid public lands activists, we came from across the west to experience this region of the Colorado Plateau, a dramatic landscape of water and wind carved canyon lands, high mountains, and alpine meadows.

The morning after our first wind-chilled night under the light of the Milky Way, we headed o to our volunteer work projects. Some went to Dark Canyon Wilderness, shovels and clippers in hand, to work on trail maintenance with local Forest Service crews. Others headed to the San Juan River near Blu to protect archaeological sites from destruction by building fences. Another group went to Valley of the Gods to dismantle illegal campfire rings, while the rest picked up trash in Natural Bridges National Monument.

We spent the following days with local experts as our guides, exploring little known archaeological sites. We saw placesof ceremony, cliff dwellings rich with pictographs and petroglyphs, and ancient animal pens. In quiet sandstone canyons, we marveled at rock art murals, wooden roof beams, and firepits. There were hand prints, grinding stones, defensive walls, corncobs, grain caches, arrow chips, pottery, and foothold paths carved into rock faces.

We hiked to remote areas of Comb Ridge, Butler Wash, Arch Canyon, and Grand Gulch, seeing places we may never have found on our own. We were lucky enough to witness the traces of thousands of years of occupation by humans who were there well before Euro Americans ever set foot in North America.

Each evening, we returned tired, but happy, to our high- country camp to eat great food and compare notes about the day. We sat under frigid starlit skies, in pine-scented smoke, to listen to guest speakers—local Native Americans, conservationists, and historians, who graciously braved the cold to share their stories with us.

 

 

 

We learned that over the past 150 years, ranchers, explorers, and archaeologists have found more than 100,000 archaeological sites within the proposed monument boundaries. Many of these sites are vulnerable and unprotected; there has been desecration and looting over the years. Much of the area is susceptible to damage through proposed oil and gas development, mining, and illegal off-road travel.

“This place embodies our collective indigenous history,” Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a Ute Tribal councilwoman explained to us around the re. “When we return to the Bears Ears we feel the presence of, and we are surrounded by, the spirits of our ancestors.”

She and other Ute and Diné people spoke to us of their love of this land and how it has inspired long-disparate factions to come together to protect it. We also learned this is the first time that Native Americans have worked to protect lands under the Antiquities Act.

Terri Martin, from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, discussed threats to the Bears Ears region, especially the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), which proposed management of these federal lands be turned over to the state of Utah in lieu of establishing a national monument.

“The PLI is a climate change nightmare because it greases the wheels for fossil fuel development by giving the State of Utah control over the permitting and regulation of all forms of energy development on [now] public lands,” said Martin.

As the sun set pinkish-tangerine behind the Bears Ears buttes that last afternoon, we were inspired to handwritten letters to President Obama about how we felt about the Bears Ears region. We expressed our hopefulness that he protect the region as a national monument. Terri gathered our heartfelt missives and bound them together to deliver to the president.

“This little known region is the most significant unprotected cultural landscape in the United States,” Martin stressed. “It is time that we expand our system of protected public lands to preserve places and stories important to cultures that have been marginalized or excluded in the past.”