San Juan County • For the past 13,000 years, humans have inhabited this part of the West.
They carved arrowheads from stone and hunted giant sloths. They learned to farm corn and created communities on the mesa tops. They scratched and painted images onto rocks and reused and remixed what was left by earlier generations.
For 11 months, the rich legacy of this region was federally protected. It’s not clear who will be its steward now.
The stories of these earlier peoples are still here, told by the places and things they left behind. And for a century, the region has been at the heart of an unresolved American argument over public lands, and what should be done with them.
In 2016, President Barack Obama created Bears Ears National Monument, named for a pair of tall buttes that resemble the top of a bear’s head peeking over a ridge. His proclamation recognized the area’s “extraordinary archeological and cultural record” and the land’s “profoundly sacred” meaning to many Native American tribes.
Eleven months later, in early December 2017, President Donald Trump reduced Bears Ears by 85%, an action that Utah officials and some local residents wanted. His rollback also followed a uranium firm’s concerted lobbying, an effort led by Andrew Wheeler, who now heads the Environmental Protection Agency.
The region, northwest of the much-visited Four Corners, includes a stunning variety of topography - flat-topped mesas and expansive valleys, sloping igneous mountains and towering sandstone cliffs.
The Obama monument protected 1.35 million acres of federally owned land and covered much of San Juan County, which has about 15,000 residents.
The designation prevented energy development and mining and allowed for restricting where vehicles could go. Republicans accused Obama of presidential overreach and said the new monument was a late-term, large "federal land grab."
Trump, in reducing the size of the monument, said “important objects of scientific or historic interest can instead be protected by a smaller and more appropriate reservation” of two disconnected parts, Shash Jaa and Indian Creek.
But many significant sites now lie outside the new monument boundaries. Trump’s executive order was immediately challenged in lawsuits, still ongoing, which were filed on behalf of archaeologists, conservationists and tribes.
Bears Ears is the first national monument created at the request of and with input from Native American governments. A coalition of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes initially sought protection for an area covering 1.9 million acres, bounded to the west and south by the Colorado and San Juan rivers.
"We knew exactly what was within that geographical boundary," said Shaun Chapoose, a tribal councilman for the Uncompahgre band of the Ute Tribe. "We knew the gravesites, we knew where the artifacts were, we knew where certain plants and herbs grew."
The Obama administration’s boundary was a compromise the tribes could accept, said Chapoose, a co-chairman on the intertribal coalition. But the Trump reduction went too far — and excluded a wealth of artifacts and sites that are essential to native peoples’ practices.
"By reducing it, you actually once again start leaving things out of that boundary," he said. "And the way our cultures are designed is, it's not like you can have one part of it and abandon the other part of it and be whole. You need all of it to fulfill the practices of the rituals that go on."
Over hundreds of generations, the region has seen periods of huge population and rapid depopulation. Today, what's left behind is a dense assemblage of artifacts and dwellings from different eras and groups. A 21st-century visitor can span thousands of years in a single stride.
Hidden in the Abajos
The Hopi and Zuni tribes trace their ancestry to the Pueblo people, who created much of what remains in Bears Ears today.
A thousand years ago, the Abajo Mountains harbored human life in every ravine and gully. Its inhabitants slept and stored food in caves tucked away in alcoves. Warfare was common around A.D. 1200, and cliff dwellings provided safety and security to Puebloans.
To Hopi, whose ancestors lived here, the masonry walls left in caves and along cliffs are tangible evidence of their cultural history.
"There's a lot of metaphorical analogy that we attach to artifacts and what they mean. But just in the general sense we would call those the footprints of our ancestors," said Lyle Balenquah, an archaeologist and a member of the Hopi tribe. "And that's the physical proof that shows to us and to the rest of the world that our oral histories aren't myths."
Zuni people, who also descended from Pueblo, periodically visit Pueblo homes to connect with their ancestors from another millennium.
"The homes that we build, we believe that they become living beings, and that nobody really leaves them," said Carleton Bowekaty, lieutenant governor of the Zuni tribe. "That if you resided there then you will return there."
The concentration of humanity over a few thousand years left behind artifacts that give us insight into the past, including tools, buildings and even food.
"If you go into a dry cave around these parts, and you get into deposits that are 2,000 years old, maybe even 3,000 years old, you will find corn," said Jonathan Till, curator of the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in the nearby town of Blanding. "Corn on the cob, corn off the cob, corn cobs without the corn on it."
By 1290, Puebloans had moved away from the Bears Ears area, migrating south to establish new communities. The region has never been as densely populated since. Blanding, founded by Mormon settlers in the early 1900s, is the biggest town in San Juan County. It has 3,500 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20% of whom are Navajo.
Now new people are tramping across the landscape, already a target for artifact hunters.
The Bureau of Land Management estimated that visitation to the area rose 56% in fiscal year 2016, as public attention grew when the Obama administration weighed establishing the monument. With the monument's status in limbo, more visitors could mean more trouble for the thousands of archaeological sites in the area.
"Once it started to get some of the attention it did, now you've got everybody who knows about it," Chapoose said. "So it's opened up some of the sensitive areas to disturbances, it's opened them up to possibilities of development, which could undermine or destroy sacred sites or cultural sites or just natural landscapes.
"It's like opening Pandora's box, right? . . . You get it protected and all of a sudden you take all the protection off."
Officials at the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service did not respond to requests for interviews on their management plan for archaeological and cultural sites both within and without the revised monument boundaries.
Across the Bears Ears landscape, visitors can find rock art that dates back thousands of years. As people moved through the area, they left their own types of markings on cliff faces, in caves and on boulders. Art that is painted onto the surface is known as a pictograph; etched or scratched-in images are called petroglyphs.
It's common to see entire scenes sketched out on the rocks, but Lyle Balenquah, the Hopi archaeologist, warns that inferring a narrative can lead you to the wrong impression.
"I always tell people on my river trips that I don't interpret rock art. I can't necessarily always say with certainty that I know what is being portrayed," he said. "You know, there's some folks out there that claim to be able to look at a rock art panel and be able to decipher this long, kind of romanticized version of a story that's being told, and I think that's kind of doing a disservice to what it could be trying to portray to us."
Federal government management of the land surrounding Blanding was a contentious topic long before the Bears Ears designation. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt's Interior Department developed a proposal that would have included much of the 2016 Bears Ears monument as well as what is now the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
President Bill Clinton established the latter protections in 1996, over the objections of Utah's congressional delegation, which escalated the long-simmering disputes in the West over federal land management. In 2017, Trump also reduced the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument, carving out some 800,000 acres.
Proposed protections for the Bears Ears region
In much of the West, the federal government is the largest landowner. Its control of those public lands has led to what critics say is a byzantine and unfair system of issuing permits and leases for mining, energy and lumber industries, and grazing rights to ranchers.
And many local and state officials in Western states resent what they see as Washington's interference in their affairs.
Trump asked former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reassess the boundaries of more than two dozen monuments that had been created, since 1996, under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gave presidents unilateral power to protect lands perceived to be under threat. In the case of Utah, the new boundaries that Trump established for Bears Ears will allow energy companies access to uranium, oil and gas deposits that had been off limits under the Obama proclamation.
There have been other conflicts over who should profit from the public lands. Tensions between the Bureau of Land Management and locals erupted in Utah in 2009 after BLM agents raided eight homes in an operation to shut down the trade of illegally acquired artifacts.
“The biggest threat to Bears Ears was first looting of cultural sites by locals, so there’s a lot of animosity toward the federal government for actually cracking down on operations to systematically loot Native American sites throughout that region — millions of dollars made in illegally harvesting and selling artifacts,” said Sally Jewell, who was interior secretary from 2013 through 2016.
During her tenure, she saw a repository of items reclaimed from families in the region who had been involved in illegal pot hunting, she said.
"I mean, they call it pot hunting, but it was grave robbery really. You had one egregious example of a cradle board with a child that had died buried in the cradle board," Jewell said, "and the child's bones had been dumped on the ground and the cradle board sold."
The BLM's tactics led to a civil suit after one of the suspects arrested in the raid died by suicide. The lawsuit was thrown out, but animosity toward the federal government remains strong.
"The federal government, at least for the last 20 years that I've been really cognizant of, has been nothing but bullies. They're arrogant, they're criminal. They lie, they cheat. They mislead." said Phil Lyman, who was a San Juan County commissioner starting in 2010 before his election to the Utah House of Representatives last year.
Lyman also has a personal history with the BLM. After the agency closed a road to protect archaeological sites in Recapture Canyon in 2014, Lyman led protesters riding ATVs through the canyon. A jury found him guilty of trespassing and conspiracy, and he was sentenced to 10 days in jail, fined $1,000 and was ordered to pay $96,000 in restitution along with a co-defendant who helped organize the protest.
For the Hopi, the fight to preserve Bears Ears intersects with a struggle to be recognized. Vandals may take a pot from a site because they think it's cool, but they are looking past the reason it exists, said Clark Tenakhongva, the vice chairman of the tribe.
"Back (50 years ago), the park rangers used to give these tours, and they would always say, 'We know that these people occupied this area in one time or another, but we don't know what happened to them. We don't know where they went.' Well, today we're changing history by telling them our side of our history. Our story, that we're still here. We never disappeared," he said.
One solution put forward by monument proponents is a management plan that would direct people to "hardened" sites, where visitors wouldn't be as likely to damage artifacts.
"Right now, this monument is not being managed. This area is not being managed by the BLM or the Forest Service or anybody else, except for Google," said Josh Ewing, the executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a local nonprofit advocacy group that is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. "Google is the main manager of this monument, because it's sending people all over the place. And so if you don't have a proactive plan of how to intercept people, where to send them, then you're just leaving it to the internet to manage the area."
Friends of Cedar Mesa runs a visitors center in Bluff, that provides some of that management — including reminding visitors that the photos they share online may have detailed geographic information attached, which can lead others to vulnerable sites.
"A strategy to protect this area for many decades was just keep it a secret," Ewing said. "Now, if you think that's a good strategy, just tell me how to put Google out of business."
In the Valley of the Gods
Some of the earliest residents of this continent were the Clovis, a prehistoric people who hunted megafauna such as giant sloths and mammoths. Agriculture was not yet prevalent in 11,000 B.C., and the Clovis were able to live in arid places such as the Valley of the Gods.
A smaller cousin just northeast of the more famous Monument Valley, this desert valley is dotted with stone pillars that jut vertically out of the valley floor and rise straight upward for hundreds of feet.
The valley is full of "very unique places" for local Dine, or Navajo, people, said Jonah Yellowman, a spiritual adviser for Utah Dine Bikeyah, a nonprofit group that works to protect ancestral lands.
"There's a place where holy people, they come together and they do things, they talk about things, and they go on their way again. There are sacred places, sacred areas here," he said, and "people don't really see . . . what we see, the stories that we have."
It took millions of years of wind and rain to carve these outcroppings from solid stone. Unlike the archaeological melange of artifacts on Cedar Mesa, the eons of sandstone in Valley of the Gods are clearly separated in contrasting layers of red and orange.
A similar separation helped Clovis artifacts survive for millennia. Elsewhere in the region, successive cultures obscure the history of those who came before. Farmers farm; people build communities; earlier artifacts are buried, destroyed or mixed with later work.
"That arid, desiccate landscape . . . it's not burdened by the profound history of farmers," Till said. The Valley of the Gods is relatively dry and has little soil depth compared with Cedar Mesa.
"Clawing back 13,000 years ago, those places, those archaeological contexts survive to some extent because of the fact that they don't have farmers living on top of them," he said.
Today, visitors can walk the same paths as the continent's first people did and see the same seemingly unchanging stones. Yellowman says if people do so, they should come with respect - the same way they would anywhere.
“Go there just to look around and to see the beauty around,” he said. “That’s what we want to protect too. Those areas. Because if we damage them, then the force of that — the power source — is not there anymore.”