Commentary: Bears Ears could become a nightmare

The people are here and there’s no plan.

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding has seen an increase in visitors recently with the attention on Bears Ears.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about designating Bears Ears a national monument. It’s not that I dislike monuments. I just don’t like big crowds. Bears Ears can’t handle that.

I have wandered these canyons for more than 20 years and hardly ever see another soul. It’s quiet, peaceful, lonesome. I take lots of photographs, but more than anything else it’s just nice to be there.

I commend Utah Diné Bikéya for their persistence in creating the monuments, but in doing so they have unintentionally put a bulls-eye on this shrine. This will result in some major unwanted consequences.

A March 31 Salt Lake Tribune article says, “BLM officials say visitation to the Bears Ears region is now skyrocketing and a plan needs to be put in place to manage visitation, regarded as a major threat to the area’s archaeological treasures.”

Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, agrees. “It would be irresponsible not to plan for this area. Comb Ridge, Upper Butler Wash are getting huge visitation and no resources,” he said.

The people are here and there’s no plan. But perhaps we can at least get the word out about the laws that protect and preserve archeological sites in the United States. They are protected. A good resource for this is the National Park Service website, nps.gov, archeology program, quoted in part below.

* The Antiquities Act of 1906: “establishes the protection of archeological materials on lands owned by the U. S.”

* Historic Sites Act of 1935: “declared the preservation of historic sites, buildings and objects to be a national policy.”

* National Historic Preservation Act of 1966: “strongly supports historic preservation activities and programs, including archeology.”

* Archeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974: “The impetus for the AHPA was the destruction of archeological sites throughout the country,”

* Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979: “protects archeological resources and sites on public (federal) lands and Indian lands.”

* Native American Graves Repatriation Act of 1990: “stipulates that illegal trafficking in human remains and cultural items may result in criminal penalties.”

In spite of all of these regulations, in 2009 federal agents arrested 23 people in the Four Corners Area in what they called “the largest investigation ever of artifacts taken from public and Native American land.” (ksl.com, June 10, 2009). A government insider purchased 256 artifacts from the “illegal network” for over $350,000.

Now we find ourselves with the worst possible scenario for Bears Ears National Monument. The lengthy debate has defined the bulls-eye. The size has been reduced from 1.35 million acres, designated by President Obama, to 220,000 acres designated by the current president in two separate areas. Together, they represent perhaps the greatest concentration of archeological sites in North America.

There’s no plan or infrastructure to protect these areas from the current wave of people. Many of the new visitors have no clue as to the laws that guard archeological sites from desecration. It may be tempting to take home a small souvenir from these sites. That is strictly illegal and if you do this, you will destroy it. And that’s the nightmare.

Maybe I’m just selfish. But for years I wandered the canyons of Comb Ridge, Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears alone. It was quiet, peaceful, lonesome and I loved it. I’m heading that way next week. I wonder what I’ll find.

Brian Jones

Brian K. Jones is a geologist, ski instructor and outdoor writer. He has been exploring archeological sites in southeastern Utah with his camera and sketch book for more than 20 years.