“They just want to tear it up with their ATVs” was the quick response I got from two people when I asked them why locals in Southeastern Utah opposed the declaration of a national monument there.
But both went on to discuss more complicated opposition to the Bears Ears National Monument, declared into being by President Obama at the end of his term – and now threatened by the new president.
“Mostly people there just want to be left alone,” said Jason, who is married to my niece and has lived in Utah most of his life. “The lure of increased tourism won’t entice them to be favorable to the monument. They don’t want more people, more traffic – even if it means more business and more money for their community.”
Being left alone could mean being left to practice the Mormon religion as it used to be, which would include polygamy – or maybe just to run all-terrain vehicles through the pinon and juniper trees.
It’s also true, Jason pointed out, that Utah has a long history of conflict with the federal government, which once sent troops to invade the territory.
Steve, who was manning the tourist-information booth when I stopped in Blanding, Utah, added to that observation.
“Utah was one of the first in the West to apply for statehood, but the last of those to be admitted to the Union,” he said. “Utah probably had more population than California, which got in way before Utah.”
Land was taken from the Utah territory and added to other states being admitted while Utah waited.
The federal government also demanded legal changes before Utah could come in, namely the outlawing of polygamy by the Mormon church.
“And I can say that because I’m one of them,” Steve said without clarifying just exactly what he was one of.
Steve said he thought Bears Ears should remain a monument but be reduced in size.
“Locals think it a huge federal overreach – it’s bigger than Delaware!”
He said most of it was protected already, either in National Forest, by the Bureau of Land Management or as one-mile squares of state ownership. On a map, he circled what area he thought should have been given additional protection.
Later he drew around even smaller areas that he thought would have been enough. He also pointed to the three chunks of land that encompass the Bears Ears National Monument.
“They left out the uranium area there, which separated a piece of the monument off to the west. And the northern part of the monument could just have easily been protected by expanding Canyonlands National Park, which is already as big as 12 states.”
Steve said he thinks the Congress should restrict the amount of acreage a president could put into a monument.
Efforts to restrict the federal government is nothing new in this part of the world. An obituary that ran at the top of page one of the April 13-19, 2017, edition of the Moab Sun News made that clear:
“In Utah and other Western states, (Ray Tibbetts) was known as a leading figure of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that sought state control over public lands and land management decisions in the late 1970s and early 1980s.”
Tibbetts, who died April 4, 2017, at age 84, was a local businessman and Grand County commissioner. Rudy Herndon wrote in the obituary that Tibbetts testified before congressional committees, opposing what he saw as federal encroachment on the sovereign rights of state and local governments to manage roads and public lands within their jurisdiction.
(But in what seems a contradiction to his general philosophy, Tibbetts helped identify places he thought should be included in Canyonlands when it was created in 1964.)
Ron Steele, a former Grand County commissioner quoted in the obituary, said Tibbetts remained active in land-use issues after his retirement – and that included giving a federal official this advice on Bears Ears: If you really want to protect the land, don’t advertise it as wilderness.
There’s an echo of that sentiment in “The Lost World of the Old Ones” by David Roberts. He explored the Bears Ears area in 1993 and stumbled on two magnificent Ancestral Puebloan ruins now known as Moon House and the Citadel.
But in the 1990s, the “secrets of Cedar Mesa were still closely guarded by a small number of cognoscenti.” You had to know someone to find them – or stumble upon them as Roberts did Moon House, which he wrote about in his earlier book, “In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest.”
Roberts says he bears some responsibility for bringing these gems to the attention of hundreds of people today, and he bemoans the abuse some of the visitors wreak upon the fragile buildings, crawling through crumbling openings, sitting on deteriorating surfaces.
But Roberts points out that very few secrets, even in the wilds, are safe in the age of the Internet. Google a site, find a trail to it. Unless the BLM limits the number of permits issued to the site, as the agency does for Moon House now (20 a day).
Are there wilderness areas that would have been more wild if never designated as such? We’ll never know.
Are there unadvertised wild areas that remain truly wild and mostly unvisited? If so, let me know. I’d like to visit and I can keep a secret.
Given that we do live in an age where wild can’t be kept secret, these areas need all the protection we can give them.
Steve said the Bears Ears area had little potential for oil and gas, that it was mostly used for grazing cattle. If Bears Ears should end up in Utah’s control, the state would be more likely to sell it, Steve mentioned in passing,
That’s the real danger: That the land passes from federal protection to state control to private ownership that might like to test the notion that there is little potential for oil, gas and mineral development.
Would an old pile of mud bricks and clay mortar stand in the way of a Koch brothers’ oil field? Would they welcome the public to enjoy the desert and explore the past?
Give me a little federal overreach any day.