What’s next for the Utah monolith after its ‘return’ to federal land managers?

The Moab slackliners who removed the illegally installed sculpture from a remote canyon last month said they delivered it to the government Friday.

(Zoom screen shot by Brian Maffly) Three of the Moab slackliners who removed the 'Utah monolith' from a remote canyon last month discuss the sculpture's fate with reporters on a Zoom call Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. Pictured, left to right, are Andy Lewis, Sylvan Christensen and Homer Manson. On Friday they delivered the monolith to the Bureau of Land Management's Moab field office.

The remains of Utah’s “mysterious monolith” were returned to the Bureau of Land Management on Friday, according to the four Moab men who removed the now-famous sculpture from federal public lands in southern Utah last month.

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Andy Lewis, Sylvan Christensen and Homer Manson, members of the BASE jumping and slacklining community in southeast Utah, claimed responsibility for carting the 10-foot sculpture out of a remote canyon in late November. (A fourth man who was involved did not disclose his identity.)

They also said they reassembled the stainless steel prism, which had been partially dismantled and stored in Lewis’ basement, and returned it to the local BLM field office last week.

The monolith, which appears to have been installed in 2016 according to historic satellite imagery, was discovered by a team of biologists in mid-November. Hundreds visited the site after the Utah Department of Public Safety posted photos of the sculpture to Instagram on Thanksgiving week and internet sleuths discovered its location near Canyonlands National Park in San Juan County.

(Zak Podmore | Tribune file photo) This mid-November file photo shows the nearly 10-foot tall steel sculpture discovered in a remote canyon in San Juan County that captured the attention of people worldwide.

“It exploded and became a destination for people,” Lewis said, adding that the overwhelming interest in the object drew mixed reactions from locals. “Right away, we heard people threatening to take it down.”

But after a few days, the sculpture remained in place and Lewis recalled asking his friends: “Who’s actually going to be the person to go out and get this thing?”

“We started thinking it might actually be a good thing to control the direction of where the Utah monolith goes,” Lewis said. “It became a symbol, and we wanted to use that … in a manageable way that teaches people effectively and efficiently about environmental awareness.”

The four men decided to take matters into their own hands in what Lewis called a “chaotic neutral” action by “antiheroes.” They drove out to the monolith site after dark on a Friday night, popped the structure from the ground and loaded it onto a wheelbarrow to take it to their truck.

After they posted a brief YouTube clip claiming credit for the removal, the backlash began.

“We were getting death threats,” Lewis, who has himself been accused of propagating toxic internet discourse in the past, said. “People were … like negatively Yelp reviewing businesses we didn’t even work for.”

The trio sought legal advice and released only a cryptic statement to the media. Some critics called the men — who have organized high-profile slackline festivals on BLM land around Moab for close to a decade — hypocrites for evoking “Leave No Trace” with regard to the monolith while also participating in damaging events. Others thanked the men for stopping the onslaught of crowds the sculpture attracted.

Christensen said that fostering a conversation around land use was part of their goal. “The [events] that we do are in accordance with BLM standards that have been put in place from years and years of back and forth discussions between user groups,” he said, adding that the event organizers have improved practices over the years.

“We’ve grown and become better about it, and we’ve learned new things,” Christensen said. “And I think that’s kind of what we want to pass along: that awareness and that knowledge of how to behave responsibly on public lands.”

In a joint statement released Monday with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, the BLM declined to either confirm or deny the recovery of the monolith because its illegal installation remains the subject of an investigation.

“We understand the public has a strong interest in the status and outcome of any investigations into the installation and removal of the illegally installed structure known as the ‘monolith,’ ” the statement read. “The BLM and San Juan County Sheriff’s Office value our close working relationship on this and many other issues, and we will continue to coordinate on investigations as relevant. We will notify the public when we have information to share.”

The men said they could have been charged with obstruction of justice in that investigation if they didn’t return the sculpture, which is considered evidence. The identity of the artist or artists behind the monolith is still not known.

But the trio added they would like to see the monolith resurrected in an appropriate public art space, possibly in the University of Utah’s Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City or in an approved sculpture park on public lands.

Jimmy Turner, the botanical garden’s executive director, did not share enthusiasm for that vision.

“The monolith will not be coming to Red Butte Garden,” Turner said in a statement.

It’s not clear where the sculpture will ultimately end up now that it appears to be back in BLM’s custody. One piece of the monolith was lost in the shuffle, however. Its triangular steel top was left on the ground and has since disappeared.

“If you do have the top, please send it back,” Lewis said. “We’d love to have the [whole sculpture] together again.”

(Zak Podmore | Tribune file photo) This Nov. 28, 2020, file photo shows the site in southeastern Utah where a non-famous 'monolith' disappeared. Only the triangular top of the structure, along with a hole in the ground were left after its removal.