Cedar Mesa • If you arrive at the South Fork Mule Canyon trailhead early enough on an April morning that a light frost is still visible on the soil, you’d hardly know it’s one of the most popular hikes in Bears Ears National Monument.
Despite long-discussed plans to develop the area, there still are no designated parking spaces at the start of the short trail to a 1,000-year-old ancestral Puebloan structure. There is a metal tube where you pay cash ($5 per person, per day), a few aging signs and parking along the shoulder of a dirt road.
On a recent Friday at 8 a.m., it was deserted.
But the 1.5-mile route to the House on Fire cliff dwelling can draw hundreds of hikers on a busy day.
There is a strain being placed on a landscape overseen by a Bureau of Land Management field office that has not yet had the time — or the money — to adjust to increasing visitation, even as a controversial monument designation conversation continues at the highest levels of government.
In places, five separate trails wind in and out of the wash, flowing into a single path and breaking apart again. Piecemeal attempts to close some badly eroded sections consist of a few cottonwood branches thrown across the ground.
Louis Williams, a Diné guide originally from the Navajo Nation in Kayenta, Ariz., has spent the past decade leading hiking and rafting trips in San Juan County. He stopped to point out a place where the trail cut directly through the faint signs of a cultural site. The soil was darkened, Williams explained, from an ancient fire pit, and a scatter of sandstone blocks in the wash below were clearly shaped by human hands.
“The walls are getting exposed,” Williams said, “but people don’t know what they’re walking through.”
Although the best-known cliff dwellings in the 1.3 million-acre boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument designated by then-President Barack Obama in 2016 involve impressive feats of stone architecture like the permitted Moon House dwelling or House on Fire, most of the hundreds of thousands of cultural sites in the area are more subtle.
“You’ve got to be observant,” Williams said, recounting finding the remnants of a wooden hogan in another canyon. “For me, it’s a feeling — where your ancestors would be.”
Ancestral connections to the Bears Ears region prompted five tribes (the Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian) to advocate for its protection during Obama’s second term in what Williams considered an inspiring show of solidarity among the tribal governments.
Both supporters of the monument designation, as well as those who cheered then-President Donald Trump’s decision to reduce Bears Ears by 85% in 2017, cited increasing recreational use as a major reason for their support for, or opposition to, the monument.
Such use on Utah’s BLM lands has climbed during the past decade, and that has been especially true for the Monticello field office, which oversees the Bears Ears region. According to BLM data, visitation there shot up 57% in 2016, the year Obama designated the monument, to 418,000 users.
Pro-monument voices argued the area needed more funding and resources to address visitor impacts as well as permanent protection from drilling and mining. Opponents argued that putting Bears Ears on the map would only draw more visitors, and with them, more impacts in an area that had little active mineral development.
Now that President Joe Biden is expected to enlarge the monument, it seems clear that larger boundaries won’t necessarily halt damage to the land and smaller ones won’t convince would-be visitors the area is not worth seeing.
More funding certainly would help the BLM adjust to the growing throngs, but protecting the often-remote and fragile archaeology of Bears Ears will require a mix of land management planning, visitor outreach, careful actions on the part of hikers, and, perhaps, a recognition on the part of non-Indigenous recreationists that it may be best to leave some sacred sites unvisited.
‘Visit with Respect’
Decades of for-profit looting and grave robbing by black market antiquities traders have largely subsided in the region, but that hasn’t stopped countless pieces of pottery and arrowheads from disappearing into visitors’ pockets or new graffiti from appearing on cliffs. Education for the tens of thousands who are estimated to have visited Bears Ears last year is needed as much as enforcement.
Williams said he always incorporates “Visit with Respect” principles into his hikes. It’s an educational program developed by the BLM, the conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa and the Colorado Plateau Coalition. The campaign emphasizes 18 simple tips for reducing impacts, ranging from “leave all artifacts” to “don’t touch rock imagery or make your own.”
When people learn it’s best to use rubber tips on the ends of hiking poles so they don’t mark up the slickrock or that dogs should be kept out of archaeological sites, they’re always understanding and thankful, Williams said. But reaching the majority of visitors — who arrive without guides on the vast expanse of mesas and canyons — with the message is tricky.
“A lot of people say, ‘Google pointed the way for me,’” he said, “but somewhere in between Google and here, there has to be some mediation.”
Friends of Cedar Mesa opened an education center in Bluff and launched an ambassador program that sends trained volunteers to popular sites to teach visitors about the landscape.
A hike with Williams serves as a cultural education in addition to providing lessons in traveling lightly. He is just as quick to note the traditional use of a plant growing along the trail in his Diné culture as its Latin name. He describes his newly launched company, Ancient Wayves River and Hiking Adventures, as an Indigenous tour service. In the coming months, he said, members of numerous tribes with ancestral ties to the Bears Ears landscape will begin leading trips for the company.
Visiting the area respectfully, however, entails more than just knowing that leaning on the walls of prehistoric dwellings can weaken or collapse them. For non-Indigenous visitors, it’s also about understanding that the descendants of people who inhabited the area for thousands of years still live nearby and return to the area to cut firewood, harvest medicinal plants, conduct ceremonies, or walk the canyons with their families.
“I see a lot of people out here who want to learn about the land,” Williams said. “Some people ask me, ‘Is there a reservation near here?’”
He’ll explain that the Navajo Nation stretches from southern Utah almost to Flagstaff, Ariz., which surprises some first-time hikers in the area. “They’ll say, ‘I thought you guys had no land, and, if anything, we thought you lived in tepees.’”
When visitors learn that the archaeological sites are part of living cultures, their attitudes start to shift.
“They’re grateful,” Williams said.
Ultimately, he wants to see a Native American-led education and ambassadorship program formed through a partnership between tribal governments and the BLM that would allow people to sign up for interpretive tours or talks with Indigenous guides.
Such a program may be a long way off. More than four years after Bears Ears was first designated, there are no entrance signs at its boundaries; there’s no federally run visitor center; and the BLM’s official resources don’t appear anywhere near the top of search engine results for Bears Ears hikes.
A call for federal funding
“My real concern is the continual destruction of the sites, vandalism at the sites,” Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said earlier this month. “Over the past five years, I would say, it seems like there’s more people coming once it was exposed as a national monument, particularly people from Utah.”
While Tenakhongva said he appreciates the efforts of nonprofits and others to help provide education and direction to visitors, he wants to see more action from Washington.
“The federal dollars just haven’t come down,” he said, “to really secure the area the way it should be protected, with resources that should be handed down by the federal government.”
The Indigenous and environmental nonprofits that began pushing for greater protection for the area a decade ago pointed to rising visitation and impacts on cultural sites as a driving reason to make the area a monument.
Opponents feared singling out the collection of BLM and U.S. Forest Service land through an Antiquities Act designation with support from the outdoor recreation industry would only draw more crowds, which many have argued remain a bigger threat to the landscape than oil drilling or uranium mining.
Winston Hurst, a renowned archaeologist and lifelong Blanding resident who opposed the monument, wrote a 2016 op-ed in which he raised concerns about the monument sparking increased recreational use “with little real hope for a commensurate increase in management resources,” and “the real issue of whether more intensive management would actually be an asset or a liability to the soul of the place.”
But if controversy and media coverage of Obama’s original designation likely contributed to a surge in visitation, Trump’s equally controversial reduction stalled planning processes by land managers while pushing even more people toward the landscape.
Blanding, which with a population of 3,500 is San Juan County’s biggest city, greeted visitors with a glaring #RescindBearsEars billboard in 2017 at the same time the town was branded as the “Gateway to Bears Ears” by the Utah travel industry. Companies like Patagonia and REI incorporated pro-monument advocacy into multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns while funneling resources to conservation nonprofits.
Meanwhile, new hotels and guiding services have sprung up. The largest new tourist development in San Juan County since 2016, Bluff Dwellings Resort & Spa, bought billboards throughout southeast Utah promoting the promise of solitude.
If Biden signs an executive order expanding the Bears Ears boundaries, it will likely increase funding for the area — while drawing even more visitors.
Areas around Bears Ears have seen spikes in tourism as well. In Arches National Park, for example, officials announced that in recent months the number of visitors rose more than 70% compared to the previous year. In nearby Canyonlands National Park, visitation jumped 100% in January, which, according to a National Park Service statement, resulted “in extended wait times to enter the park, illegal parking creating safety and resource preservation issues, and visitors walking in and along roadways to access viewpoints and trailheads, creating unsafe conditions.”
Utah law requires a portion of tax revenues generated from hotels and restaurants to be spent on tourism promotion, even if, as in Moab’s case, swarms of visitors are placing serious strains on local infrastructure.
‘Protection is respect’
As visitation soars across the federal public land system, a cultural shift may be needed as much as signs or informational pamphlets. In the wake of a rock climber bolting through prehistoric Fremont petroglyphs near Moab earlier this month, Sappony writer Nick Martin wrote an article in The New Republic that challenged the mindset of recreational users who “conceptualize their relationship with nature as a one-way street: Nature provides — be it a wall to climb, a scene to shoot, or a buck to be made — and humans take, without ever having to think of offering anything in return.”
A proposal to add restrooms, parking and a marked loop trail in South Fork Mule Canyon was opened to public comment in 2019, and it’s slowly making its way through the review process. While such amenities are needed in some areas, the overall monument will likely remain far less developed than a typical national park.
By noon on a recent Friday, the trailhead area was bustling with hikers filling their water bottles from jugs, wrangling dogs and leashes, and looking for a place to turn around their camper trailers. Williams offered friendly advice to visitors who wanted to know where the trail started and how long the hike would take.
For Williams, who supported the original monument and its increased restrictions on industrial development, protection requires more than just a land management designation.
“Protection is respect for the land,” Williams said, and that’s something that has to be learned, felt and practiced, not just declared by presidential proclamation.
“In the stories, the bear is the protector of the surrounding mountains,” Williams said, referring to the twin 8,400-foot buttes that rise high above the surrounding landscape and are known as “the bear’s ears” in the languages of all five tribes in the inter-tribal coalition.
“That’s why the bear is kicking back there,” he said. “It’s watching over Navajo Mountain; it’s watching over Mount Hesperus. That’s why you see the ears. The bear has been protecting us all these years, and, as I like to think of it, now we’re helping to protect it.”
— Tribune reporter Brian Maffly contributed to this story.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.