By Andrew Gulliford
In December 2016 President Barack Obama established the Bears Ears National Monument at 1.35 million acres. A year later, President Donald Trump shrank the monument by 85% resulting in five federal lawsuits questioning his legal authority to change another president’s declaration under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Anyone who has lived or visited in San Juan County, Utah in the last decade will benefit from Rebecca Robinson’s new book Voices from Bears Ears as she seeks to find common ground among those who supported the monument and those who oppose it.
The book is based on interviews conducted between 2014-2017, “three years of listening,” with locals, environmentalists, politicians, ranchers, lawyers, archaeologists, and Native Americans who all feel deeply moved by the stunning Bears Ears landscape, which sprawls from red rock desert near Valley of the Gods north to the cool, high ponderosa pines on Elk Mountain and Bears Ears itself taking in Comb Ridge, Cedar Mesa, Indian Creek, and seven wilderness study areas.
Photos by Stephen Strom captured from promontories and from the air illustrate the diverse desert landscape. Interludes between the interviews cover a variety of topics from Mormon history and religious persecution to federal Indian law. Each narrator is carefully described with references to his or her background and connection to San Juan County.
What results is environmental journalism with a conservation bent and a synthesis of southeast Utah public land politics and squabbles, though at times the book is repetitious. Mormon families claim a deep connection to the land, often going back several generations. Native families claim the same landscape over centuries and even millennia.
Public land use in San Juan County, and who gets to speak for its citizens and visitors, remains highly controversial. In accurate detail this book chronicles Native philosophy, “cultural mapping,” “stakeholder driven efforts on compromise,” “energy zones of development,” “collaborative management with tribes,” and “the concept of healing.” Some Native Americans feel Bears Ears represents opportunities for tribal sovereignty via co-management of federal land to rectify old wrongs including overt and covert discrimination and political disenfranchisement.
Eloquent interviewees telling their personal stories with passion and conviction include Jonah Yellowman, Kay and Patsy Shumway, Mark Maryboy, Rob Bishop, Heidi Redd, Josh Ewing, Bruce Adams, Charles Wilkinson, Natasha Hale, Regina Lopez-White Skunk, Carleton Bowekaty, Don Simonis, Winston Hurst, Shaun Chapoose, Kate Cannon and Alfred and Sahmie Lomahquah.
Readers will learn about the Dugout Ranch, Phil Lyman’s illegal May 2014 ATV protest ride, the Public Lands Initiative, the county’s Public Lands Council that Lyman championed, Utah Dine Bikeyah, the five tribes in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the Friends of Cedar Mesa, and how no one wants the “wall-to-wall tourists” who have transformed Moab.
Some local citizens deplore “outsider” environmentalists while embracing “outsider” energy and mining companies. There is no question that mining and oil and gas revenue filled county coffers in previous decades, but like ranching, commodity values have tapered off. The county is at a crossroads. San Juan County is spatially the largest in Utah and the poorest. Economic development is vital, but how to achieve it remains elusive. Many of the interviewees offer worthwhile solutions, but there is no agreed upon roadmap to sustained economic vitality.
Voices from Bears Ears offers a rare snapshot of a decade of canyon country controversy. Previous headlines from The San Juan Record are distilled in this book, providing an important opportunity for perspective and reflection. It is definitely worth reading. The conflicts are not going away, and the media glare intensifies. Torrey House Press brought out Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears (2017). The November 2018 National Geographic has as its cover story “Battle for the American West,” which prominently features Bears Ears, and KUED television in Salt Lake City has produced “Battle Over Bears Ears.”
Author Rebecca Robinson writes, “To this day, locals lobby and protest in hopes of returning the BLM’s focus to ‘multiple use,’ which in their view would restore the priority given to grazing, mining, and oil and gas extraction, all of which locals see as engines of prosperity” (p. 14) while “native people of the region believe that the spirits of their ancestors still inhabit these sites. Protecting the land, therefore, is not only about leaving a gift for future generations; it is also about keeping the past alive in the present” (p.16).
Then there’s the issue of previous and ongoing pothunting and vandalism of archaeological sites, which was one of the main reasons Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law over a century ago. Outfitter and guide Vaughan Hadenfeldt and San Juan Record publisher Bill Boyle agree about protecting the county’s estimated 100,000 archaeological sites. “There is a portion of the culture that looks the other way or winks at the plunder of archaeological treasure, which is entirely unacceptable,” Boyle states (p.164).
If locals fear a Moab-style tourist frenzy in quiet San Juan County, they should be worried about the enormous publicity brought to Bears Ears. “We’ve kind of publicized the heck out of this (area) to show people that it’s of international quality and needs to be protected. But that’s resulted in even more people coming to visit without any resources or any plans (for protecting the land),” Josh Ewing, of Friends of Cedar Mesa, states (p. 146).
“Attempting to heal deep wounds among factions in San Juan County seems an impossible task,” author Robinson laments (p. 310). Bruce Adams concurs. He believes, “This whole monument discussion has created much more division in the county than we had prior to the monument discussion and all the efforts that went into it” (p. 304).
It is hard to know when the controversy over Bears Ears National Monument will diminish. Arizonans originally hated Grand Canyon National Monument, too. Local rancor and rhetoric could take three generations to diffuse. In the meantime, read Voices from Bears Ears to understand diverse personal perspectives. Everyone claims to love San Juan County’s landscape. They only want a future for their families. Let’s listen to our neighbors.