Tim Peterson
Bears Ears Buttes, the geological formation that gives the site in Utah its name. It's a 1.9 million-acre area that 24 tribes are working to protect, in collaboration with rock climbers, members of the U.S. Forest Service and conservationists, among others.

Bears Ears Sacred Site Unites 24 Tribes With Rock Climbers, Conservationists

Anne Minard

A coalition of 24 Native American tribes working to create a conservation area would be strong. Add the support of rock climbers, local Forest Service officials and conservation groups, and you’ve got the makings of an unusually powerful movement.

That’s exactly what’s happening in southeastern Utah. A Navajo conservation group called Utah Diné Bikéyah has taken the lead on a campaign to protect a 1.9 million-acre area called Bears Ears, which includes world-class rock climbing, untrammeled wilderness and the ancestral lands of numerous southwestern Indian nations.

Willie Grayeyes, Navajo, the group’s board chairman, said Navajos, Utes and San Juan Paiutes use the area to gather medicinal plants and for ceremonies and hunting. But as for the motivation to protect the area, “mainly it’s the ancestral interest that we have,” he said. “The second focus of our position is that the there’s a lot of grave robbery, artifacts being disturbed and taken without authorization and being sold elsewhere.”

Navajo elders living near the San Juan River initiated the proposal. The river divides the Navajo Nation and Bears Ears to the north, and a large cliff rises above the river. Below the cliff the land is primarily barren, but above it forests and meadows thrive. “This is an area that the elders pretty much unanimously have said should be preserved in its current state,” said Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, who has been documenting the elders’ thoughts and stories about the land.

Utah Diné Bikéyah has formed an umbrella organization called the Bears Ears Coalition with numerous conservation groups including Friends of Cedar Mesa, Conservation Lands Foundation, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Grand Canyon Trust and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Coalition also enjoys the support of Patagonia. Together, the members hosted a gathering in April of seven regional tribes with ties to the area. Some of them rode along in an EcoFlight flyover of the Bears Ears region.

Regional Coalescence

Support for protecting Bears Ears spans far and wide, including tribes from Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and even Texas. In addition, the movement has ardent support from an active group of rock climbers who cherish the area for its world-renowned routes.

On March 12, for example, the Navajo Nation Council’s Naabik’iyátí’ Committee passed a resolution supporting the designation of Bears Ears as a National Conservation Area or National Monument. According to the resolution, the area is the birthplace of Navajo Headman Manuelito.

“The initiative to protect the Bears Ears area was initiated by local Utah Navajos,” said the resolution’s sponsor, Council Delegate Walter Phelps (Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Leupp, Tolani Lake, Tsidi To ii chapters), in a press release. “However, the combined collective interest of tribes in the region including Ute, Hopi, Hualapai, Zuni, and others only make the proposal more viable. We look forward to making positive progress with leaders in Washington.”

Paul Torres, governor of the Isleta Pueblo south of Albuquerque and chairman of the All-Pueblo Council of Governors, traveled to the proposed conservation area last year with 15 other Pueblo governors. The governors also passed and signed a resolution conveying their support for the protection of Bears Ears.

“It is very important not only to Isleta Pueblo but to the other 19 Pueblos, including Ysleta del Sur in Texas,” Torres said. “There is no pueblo there now, but our ancestors were there. We saw areas where there were kivas. We saw an area, a cliff dwelling area that hadn’t been vandalized. We were shown how our ancestors lived there. Most of the governors who were there shared the feeling of our ancestor spirits still being there within that area. It’s all pueblo. Every bit of it is pueblo.”

Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, initially became enamored with the area through his love of rock climbing. He said Bears Ears boasts many climbing areas, but by far the most famous is Indian Creek.

“There’s no place on Earth like it, where the cracks are so perfect, and so abundant, and so close to each other,” he said.

Tribes and climbers have been at odds over other sacred sites, such as Cave Rock in Nevada and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming; disputes over access have led to federal lawsuits in both cases.

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Ewing has observed much more cooperation around Bears Ears.

“Climbers and Native American people, we’re kind of unified behind the idea that this is a special place,” he said. “We don’t want to see it industrialized. We don’t want to see sacred sites destroyed or damaged.”

Climbers in the area are very cognizant of making sure their activities don’t have an impact on sacred places, he added.

“There’s plenty of climbing to be had in places that aren’t shrines or places where ceremonies are frequently done,” Ewing said. “Climbers have been proactive about making sure not to climb routes that are close to rock art. If somebody puts up a route too close, they’ll take anchors down. That has shown earnestness that climbers want to respect those sorts of things.”

Rock art at Comb Ridge in Bears Ears, Utah. (Photo: Josh Ewing)

Ewing acknowledged that “robust discussions” could emerge about where climbing is appropriate once Bears Ears is designated. But regardless, Friends of Cedar Mesa is one of the proposal’s strongest supporters.

So far the coalition hasn’t decided whether to pursue a National Conservation Area or a National Monument designation, either of which would provide for protection and multiple use but prohibit mining and most other development.

“Our intent is to try and set the tone that protection is what we’re after, but it’s inclusive of other user groups that can approach this landscape with respect,” said Noyes. “The main thing it would do is elevate the cultural resource management priorities.”

Local Officials: Not So Fast, Please

The coalition recently invited Manti La Sal National Forest Supervisor Mark Pentecost and a district ranger out of Moab to tour Bears Ears and visit with tribal members working to protect it.

“They talked a lot about heritage and custom and all in that area, and the historical significance of it,” Pentecost said. “I was really happy to get to meet with them and hear about their initiatives.”

But locally, protective land management practices, while important, would be subject to change every time management turns over. A national designation would be far more protective.

So the coalition is pursuing two main tracks toward permanent protection: a National Conservation Area, which would be designated by Congress, and a National Monument by executive order under the Antiquities Act. An executive order could happen with the stroke of a pen up until President Obama’s final hours in office, and the Coalition views it as a viable path; the President has designated several other monuments to preserve cultural diversity and has indicated his support for Native American interests.

The congressional route hinges on an effort by Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources. He plans to introduce omnibus legislation that includes conservation, recreation and development components, but the Bears Ears Coalition members don’t know yet whether the Native American cultural interests will be adequately represented in those plans.

Rebecca Benally, Navajo, is a county commissioner for San Juan County, which encompasses much of the proposed designation. It’s important, she said, to wait for the congressional process and include input from all of San Juan County’s residents—which should be given priority over the interests of non-resident conservation advocates.

“My understanding, as of this month, is that the Ute Tribe wants to propose a plan as well as the Utah Diné Bikéyah and the San Juan County Land Council,” she said.

The latter group has advanced something called “Proposal B,” which includes only half a million protected acres and could allow development on much of the rest.

A public hearing on the alternate proposal had been scheduled for June 15, but was postponed because representatives from Utah Diné Bikéyah weren’t available to meet then, Benally said.

“I think in spirit, everybody wants to work together,” she said. “But when it comes down to actually deciding the boundaries and what kind of management, that’s where the difficulties come. The heart of Cedar Mesa is what everybody wants to preserve. That’s where the richest cultural sites are, where the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has said there are burial sites. The heart of Cedar Mesa, everybody agrees, should be preserved.”

Abajo Mountains in Bears Ears, a 1.9-acre region in Utah that tribes, conservationists and others are working to preserve. (Photo: Tim Peterson)

There has been limited interest in mining the Bears Ears area over the years, and the White Mesa Uranium Mill is active nearby. Otherwise, there are no immediate development proposals.

“Some people would say there aren’t a lot of threats,” Noyes said but noted that the heart of the area comprises a single 50-mile-long canyon that is 100 to 200 feet deep and up to 50 feet wide at some points, making it vulnerable to more than mining.

“One bridge over that would probably open up that whole area to vehicle traffic,” Noyes said. “It’s an area that has not seen much exploration or activity. It would be naïve to assume that just because nothing is happening there today, that there wouldn’t be threats down the road.”

So far local officials aren’t fully on board with forgoing development across the entire 1.9 million acres proposed for protection. Benally says it’s important to keep an open mind.

“My only position is that the Utah Navajos, especially, because we’re the ones who live here day in and day out, and San Juan County residents, be the ones at the table and have input verses outside influences,” Benally said. “They should be in the driver’s seat.”

While Benally appreciates the input from regional and even national groups interested in the area, “they should be very respectful of the people who are truly San Juan County residents and have to live with these decisions, whatever they are,” she added.

For his part Grayeyes feels that the widespread movement is the only way to protect Bears Ears as well as other Native American sacred sites threatened by the specter of development, damage and loss. The Bears Ears Coalition will need support from the national public—and especially Native Americans—in order to succeed, he said.

“We have matters of interest to Native Americans across the country,” Grayeyes said. “We need to unify under one umbrella and support each other across the nation.”

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