Op-ed: Protect Cedar Mesa with national monument if necessary

First Published      Last Updated Mar 06 2015 05:06 pm

Last week, the Utah Senate passed resolution SCR4 urging Congress to restrict the presidential creation of national monuments under the Antiquities Act. The Utah House of Representatives will likely consider SCR4 soon.

The resolution specifically named the Cedar Mesa area of southern Utah as a place where using the Antiquities Act would defy the original intent of the law. The resolution went on to assert that "the highest and best use" of the Cedar Mesa area is grazing and energy development.

As a local conservation group working for permanent protection of a landscape filled with important archaeological sites, Friends of Cedar Mesa strongly supports congressional action as an alternative to a presidential monument proclamation. However, we are astounded by the assertion that a place as filled with antiquities as Cedar Mesa would not qualify for protection under the Antiquities Act. We are equally alarmed by the contention that industrializing the Mesa through energy development should be prioritized over preserving sacred cultural sites, Native American traditions and a breathtaking natural landscape that draws visitors from around the world.

We can only assume our state legislators have been swept away by anti-federal government sentiment without taking the time to become knowledgeable about the Cedar Mesa area. We would hope that members of the Utah Legislature would take the time to visit Cedar Mesa, learn about the archaeology of the area and re-evaluate the claim that Cedar Mesa does not deserve permanent protection. A little historical background is informative here. When President Theodore Roosevelt saw the country's national treasures — antiquities like Indian ruins and artifacts — disappear from public lands into private collections and piles of rubble, he signed into law the Antiquities Act in 1906. By passing the Act, Congress gave the President the power "to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the government of the United States to be national monuments…"

Polls have consistently shown broad public support for national monuments, even where they were controversial at the time they were designated. For example, a 2011 poll found 69 percent of Utah residents supported the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which last week's Senate resolution calls an "unfortunate creation." Public support should be no surprise, given the obvious national value of places the Act has been used to protect. Landscapes filled with American history have been preserved, such as Chaco Canyon, Bandelier, Hovenweep, and Canyon de Chelly National Monuments. Proclamations have also been essential to protect areas of outstanding scenic or geologic interest, such as the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, and Arches.

Cedar Mesa and the surrounding area qualify for protection both as a place filled with antiquity and a landscape rich with scenic beauty and geologic wonder

Considered sacred ground by several Native American tribes, the greater Cedar Mesa is home to an estimated 56,000 cultural sites. Undoubtedly the most significant unprotected archaeological area in the United States, Cedar Mesa has one of the highest concentrations of prehistoric sites in the nation.

So much more than a one-dimensional archaeological area, this region is also a place of amazing natural beauty, with remote colorful canyons, immense vistas and the potential for solitude. For millennia, Native American people have used the land for ceremonies, gathering of sacred herbs, hunting and other sustenance activities.

Yet, despite the best efforts of land managers, this unique landscape has not received the protection needed to preserve it for our children and grandchildren. A long history of looting continues even to this day, and any long-time explorer of Cedar Mesa will attest to the dramatic disappearance of artifacts and damage to ruins witnessed over the last 100 years. Now, with increased visitation and little oversight, history disappears on a daily basis, one colorful potsherd, one graffiti scrawl, one dislodged building stone at a time.

To preserve this landscape for future generations, Friends of Cedar Mesa has proposed the a congressionally created National Conservation Area, including permanent designation of wilderness. Support for protecting this landscape has come from at least 24 Native American tribes and pueblos, including the Navajo and Hopi peoples, as well as the unanimous support of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 19 Pueblos.

Friends of Cedar Mesa has been actively engaged in the Public Lands Initiative led by Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz. The Initiative has the potential to create timely, thoughtfully crafted legislation that could accomplish preservation without the need for a National Monument. Such legislation would provide a flexible framework for conservation while supporting ongoing uses like recreation, ranching, responsible motorized recreation, hunting, ceremonial collection of herbs and other subsistence uses.

While we support permanent protection in the form of a less-controversial National Conservation Area, getting legislation passed in the immediate future could be a monumental task. If legislation fails to protect a place as remarkable and threatened as Cedar Mesa, it will only be greater evidence as to the wisdom of creating – and maintaining – the Antiquities Act to empower the president to act decisively to protect American history.

Josh Ewing is executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa.