When President Donald Trump carved nearly 2 million acres from the desert designations of two southern Utah national monuments last year, conservationists were quick to inventory which popular sites were stripped of federal protections.
Cedar Mesa in what was formerly Bears Ears. Much of the Hole in the Rock trail from the previous boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante. Tens of thousands of archaeological spots between the two. And many digs where paleontologists have uncovered new dinosaur fossils.
Now, after months of study and cataloging, a team of University of Utah geology researchers would like to add something to the list. Well, actually 115 things.
They have mapped at least 115 natural rock arches — 37 in Grand Staircase and 78 in Bears Ears — that were left outside the monuments when they were drastically reduced in December 2017. The group started a digital archive to “preserve a sort of portrait” of them all, said Jeff Moore, associate professor of geology and geophysics at the U.
“That’s a resource of Utah worth preserving,” he said. “Sometimes people have a view that rock is strong and these features have been there for thousands of years and they’ll weather changes. But I think that people don’t always realize how fragile these arches are and how special they are.”
Trump’s authority to shrink the designations is currently under review in federal court. But Moore believes that during the interim and without more immediate protections, some of those redrock arches could be gone before anything is decided on the land’s future management.
His team has begun to take pictures and measure the arches as they stand. Their project is called “Deserted Arches.”
“I doubt that many people know that there are this many arches out there,” said Ammon Hatch, a graduate student who has worked on the project.
The team has started by highlighting arches that now fall under the Bureau of Land Management’s jurisdiction. The idea, Hatch said, is to focus on the structures that could be threatened if the federal agency accepts potential mineral or extraction claims on the land.
While mining is one of the research group’s biggest fears, people traipsing without restriction over the arches could also cause irreparable damage. Many of the features are remote, but trails lead directly to some of the most sensitive ones.
That includes Big Arrowhead Arch in what was formerly Bears Ears National Monument.
Moore’s team documented the arch with pictures, video and 3D models to be sort of “an enriched archive.” It also created a GIF that shows how it shifts up and down throughout the day (the movement is exaggerated because the actual bouncing is imperceptibly slow).
All arches move, and researchers can track the changes to see if a structure is healthy or on the verge of collapse. They can also check the data in the future to get a sense of any rapid deterioration.
“Every second of every day, they’re vibrating, they’re constantly quivering,” said Moore, who has studied these movements for the past few years, including most notably at Rainbow Bridge.
The sound of the movement is recorded, too, and it reverberates sort of like a guitar string. As part of its archive, the U.’s team captured audio clips for several arches and sped them up so they would be audible. The one for Big Arrowhead Arch was captured in July and is a twangy six-minute clip of low resonating tones.
“Arches have been doing this throughout their evolution,” Moore added. “This is a kind of voice. It’s humming out its state of health.”
The archive, hosted at geohazards.earth.utah.edu/bear, is a documentation of the arches as much as a digital experience of them. Visitors can see, hear and explore the structures.
Utah has the world’s highest concentration of natural arches and bridges. Arches National Park alone is home to more than 2,000. Hatch said because of those high numbers, it can be hard to understand that the features are actually quite rare and fragile. Moore calls them “chance occurrences.”
“They’re very fleeting, if you think in geologic terms,” Hatch added. “It’s good to preserve these in some digital format.”
Sunset Arch, for instance, in what used to be part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, is particularly vulnerable to damage — by people who can easily access it and by natural decay that occurs over time. Hatch believes it’s important to create a record that these arches exist and raise awareness that they’re no longer federally protected.
The team will continue to expand its archive with more images and measurements. Wendy Wischer, an assistant professor in the U.’s Department of Art & Art History, will also create an art exhibit using the environmental data to go along with the project.
“The installation,” she said, “will allow people to experience these in multiple ways, translate that in poetic ways.”
Moore, too, believes that over time his team will find even more arches “evicted” from the monuments to add to the archive.