Two small buttes, similar in size and shape, glow in the light of sunset. If you use your imagination it is possible to envision them as the ears of a giant bear just as the native peoples did centuries before. While still beautiful, at first glance the Bears Ears are hardly the icons we have come to expect from our national parks and monuments, no Half Dome, Old Faithful or Denali. However, first impressions can be deceptive.
Some estimates place the number of archeological sites in the area of Bears Ears as high as 100,000 making it one of the richest archeological regions in the United States. Today much of the focus and attention surrounds the countless cliff dwellings, granaries and rock art panels, dating back as much as 2,500 years that are hidden within the maze of canyons. While these remarkably preserved structures and panels are a striking reminder of the most recent civilization that thrived here archeologists have unearthed evidence of still older cultures, the artifacts discovered at the Lime Ridge Clovis site date back 13,000 years.
For many years the area containing the archeological sites of Bears Ears have been comprised of a patchwork of BLM, state, tribal and private lands. This composite of ownership has offered a level of protection and while there has been some intentional and unintentional destruction of significant ruins, the large majority of sites have remained intact and relatively undisturbed. This is a testimony to the people of southern Utah in recognizing the treasures the region holds and they should be commended for their efforts.
The protections offered by this composite ownership, however, has limits. Private land owners can be enticed to sell to corporations with large sums of money. State and local lands can be purchased or leased with the promise of high paying jobs and economic development. And, as we have seen recently, the BLM is at the mercy of policy makers who, more often than not, have never set foot on the land. Armed with lobbyists, lawyers, cash and false promises of prosperity and claims of coexistence or reclamation, large corporations can sway politicians, influence policies and efficiently strip away these local protections.
Most of the corporations interested in the natural resources of the southern Utah area are global entities with no direct ties to the area. Once a corporation has established itself, the region may find that it is dependent on circumstances far beyond their control. Oil and gas prices fluctuate, corporations merge and divest, and new technologies are developed all of which can combine to either weaken any existing land protections or force corporations to abandon the area and promises.
We all use and benefit from the products oil and mining corporations provide and there are places suitable for this activity. Bears Ears is not one of them. The land is too culturally significant, the risks are to great and the cost is much too high.
A national monument designation is not the perfect solution and although people will still be able to use the land much as they have (hunting, gathering and overlanding) there will be restrictions. However, the benefits of a monument designation far outweigh the costs. It will prevent the irreversible exploitation for corporate gain of a land regarded by the Native American people as sacred and it will preserve the ancient culture, antiquities, and heritage of this nation’s first citizens.