Josh Ewing: Now is not a good time to visit Bears Ears

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) This May 8, 2017, photo, shows Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. The Bears Ears National Monument covers 315 square miles (816 square kilometers) of southeastern Utah lands considered sacred to Native Americans that are home to ancient cliff dwellings and other artifacts. President Barack Obama created the monument in 2016, and President Donald Trump downsized it a year later.

We get it. Nature is comforting in these uncertain times. And who wouldn’t want to leave the big city for what seems like the relative safety of social distancing in Utah’s vast public lands? But a problematic scenario appears to be playing out in southeastern Utah.

Despite exhortations to avoid unnecessary travel, local nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa is noting a significant flow of recreation users to the greater Bears Ears region. Each one of these travelers poses a risk of spreading COVID-19 as they stop for gas, buy groceries at crowded and undersupplied stores and try to find a place to use the restroom that isn’t closed.

With lodging and camping shut down to outside visitors in Moab, as well as all of Grand, Emery and Carbon counties, it makes sense travelers seeking solitude are pushing into San Juan County. Our field team has never seen more campers along Comb Ridge and local BLM campgrounds are packed. This has led people to camp in previously undisturbed campsites and impact sensitive areas with archaeological resources.

Not only can a flood of visitors increase negative impacts on a fragile landscape, but it also puts remote gateway communities at risk. A COVID-19 outbreak in this region could quickly overwhelm our health care system with potentially dangerous consequences.

For example, the town of Bluff, where Friends of Cedar Mesa is located, is the closest community to the base of Bears Ears National Monument. There are no clinics, no hospitals, few emergency medical technicians and a small volunteer fire department. This community relies heavily on good but limited health care services in nearby Blanding or Monticello.

Our community is also home to a significant population of retirees. It’s why we closed the Bears Ears Education Center upon the advice to limit places where people gather. (We still provide visitor information via phone and the BearsEarsMonument.org website).

Our small businesses — the backbone of our communities — are hurting. They rely heavily on tourism, which makes it all the more difficult to encourage visitors to err on the side of caution and return home. Unfortunately, the threat of travelers from far and wide is too great to ignore.

If you simply can’t resist travel in the interest of the greater good, Friends of Cedar Mesa encourages you to at least respect this irreplaceable landscape. An influx of visitors unfamiliar with best practices for exploring sensitive lands can cause lasting damage. Make sure you educate yourself on how to Visit with Respect and don’t camp in undisturbed areas. As gross as this sounds, take responsibility for your own waste. Use a camp toilet or portable waste bag, or at the very least bury it 6 inches deep.

Even prior to this outbreak, Friends of Cedar Mesa noted a growing problem of human excrement in Bears Ears. Due to COVID-19, nearby services at community gas stations and restaurants are limited with many restroom facilities closed — creating even more of a potential problem.

With so much at stake, including the health of our communities and our public lands, we kindly encourage you to refrain from traveling, especially to small gateway communities with a lack of services and health care. Still, if you feel you can’t part with your time on public lands in southeast Utah, please at least have the heart to Visit with Respect. Pay your fees, pack out your poop, stay on designated roads, don’t bust the crust, leave all artifacts as you find them, don’t touch rock art, steer clear of walls and teach kids how to visit respectfully.

The bottom line: The canyons can wait, can you?

Josh Ewing

Josh Ewing, Bluff, is executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa.