Views from the Colorado Plateau: The Bears Ears in Two Histories

By Rebecca Robinson + Stephen Strom

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Salt Creek Canyon
Salt Creek Canyon. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

This is a story about a unique place with an exceptional history, and the people who call it home. It is also a story of the cultural cross currents that roil our times: the struggle to maintain tradition and culture in the face of a rapidly changing world, the lines we draw to define and defend what is ours, the ties that bind us together, and the fear that threatens to tear us apart. It is about the pain of past injustices, and the efforts to heal age-old wounds to create a shared future; it is about voices that haven’t been heard and stories that haven’t been told. It is about the opportunity to honor land held sacred by Natives and Anglos, and to transform contested ground into common ground.

The best way to comprehend the Colorado Plateau is to take wing. With the benefit of a bird’s-eye view, the scale and rhythm of the landscape come into full relief: the endless ridges, buttes, mesas, and canyons, sculpted and painted by water and wind, glowing red at sunset and gleaming white at dawn, streams and rivers the veins and arteries through which the desert’s lifeblood and scarcest resource flow. The land bears witness to explosive emergence and tectonic shifts that shaped the earth into otherworldly formations: cinder cones, rainbow bentonite hills, and jagged anticlines. It is country that both tests the body and stirs the soul.

San Juan River near Lake Powell
Aerial photo of the San Juan River. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

The focus of our story is San Juan County, a nearly 8,000-square-mile stretch of land in Utah’s southeastern corner. One of the poorest and most sparsely populated counties in the state and the country, it is bordered on the east by Colorado’s San Juan and La Plata mountain ranges, on the west by the sinuous path of the Colorado and Green Rivers, on the north by Moab and the eastern half of Canyonlands National Park, and on the south by the Arizona state line and the Navajo Nation.

Map of San Juan County
San Juan County (shaded green), heart of the Colorado Plateau. Click image for larger view.
Map by Stephanie Smith, courtesy Grand Canyon Trust.

Within this vast desert lie the Bears Ears; 8,500-foot-high twin buttes that dominate the landscape for more than 60 miles in all directions. They have come to symbolize two opposing philosophies of public land use: permanent protection by the federal government, and a fierce opposition to any government control.

Bears Ears, winter at sunset
Bears Ears, winter at sunset. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

For countless generations, Navajos, Utes, and Puebloan tribes from across the Colorado Plateau have come to Bears Ears to hunt, gather firewood, collect herbs, and hold religious ceremonies in a place they all consider sacred. Nearly every canyon, ridge and wash in San Juan County holds evidence of ancient civilizations stretching back thousands of years: pots, projectiles, pit houses and petroglyphs or pictographs that tell the stories of Native peoples who have long called this place home. To them, the land is a source of strength and spiritual power, a living, breathing entity that must be honored and protected.

To San Juan County’s Anglo Mormons, their connection is multi-generational and spiritual, as well. The success of the Mormon settlers in taming this rugged and unforgiving landscape after a harrowing journey across southern Utah grounds them in the conviction that their ancestors, fortified by the guidance of their Heavenly Father, were destined to live and prosper in His country.

For both Native tribes and Anglo Mormons, their connection to the land is elemental. It is the key to who and why they are.

Valley of the Gods, from Moki Dugway
Valley of the Gods, from Moki Dugway. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

It is another pre-dawn morning in Bluff, Utah, and in the fading light of a nearly full moon we stumble towards sentience, crunching the red dirt that has collected in the tread of our shoes and spreading it across the tile floor as we gather cameras, notebooks, snacks, clothing layers and keys—do-you-have-them—yes-I-have-them—here-they-are—okay-let’s-get-out-of-here—and load the Toyota 4Runner that has taken us thousands of miles across the Colorado Plateau. We gulp down the last of our coffee, and hit the road.

We grumble about the sleep we’ve sacrificed in service of optimal photo lighting, but before we can complain further, our eyes are drawn to the bluffs surrounding us as the first rays of sunlight set the red rock ablaze. Our sleep deprivation becomes a blessing, as we stop at every clearing and wide shoulder to capture images of a landscape transformed by the rapidly changing light.

We wend our way towards a date with one of the central figures in the battle for the future of Utah’s public lands: a proud descendant of Mormon pioneers, a divisive local politician, and a states’-rights crusader whose act of civil disobedience catapulted him into the national spotlight.

Valley of the Gods
Valley of the Gods. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

Our 4Runner bumps down a narrow gravel road just north of Blanding on a crisp, clear April morning as Phil Lyman, our guide to San Juan County’s wild country, shares stories about a landscape that lives in his soul.

“Let’s drive down here to Devil’s Canyon,” Lyman says, pointing on our topo map to a thin black line that weaves its way through piñon pine and scrub oak-studded mesas.

There are a surprising number of devils in God’s country. Lyman ticks off other favorite spots from his childhood—Devil’s Punchbowl, Devil’s Heartbeat, the Devil’s Knoll—where he and his friends would head, sleeping bags in tow, just after the final school bell rang on Friday afternoons.

Lyman exits the car and squints into the sunlight, tugging his black suit jacket over his stocky frame. He is the chairman of the San Juan County Commission, serving alongside his two fellow commissioners as the most powerful public officials in the county. Today was picture day at the county offices, and he is still dressed for business, sporting a starched white button-down shirt, black slacks, and black leather oxfords, which he scuffs as he kicks pebbles down the road. He has closely cropped gray hair with a distinctive streak of white. His intense blue eyes carefully scan the landscape for signs of the past.

Phil Lyman
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

We arrive at the edge of a canyon set against the backdrop of Sleeping Ute Mountain. Lyman points to a site directly across from where we’re standing and asks us what we see. He watches as we struggle, then smiles as we make our discovery. Just below the canyon rim lie the remnants of an Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling, its open door winking at us like an adobe eye.

“You could pull off anywhere and find ruins,” Lyman says. “This is one of the coolest.” He describes its features with the well-trained eye of a desert dweller who has spent a lifetime discovering archaeological sites both by choice and by chance.

His ancestral ties to this land run deep. His great grandfather, Walter C. Lyman, was one of the original Mormon pioneers sent by the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to settle southeastern Utah in 1879. The elder Lyman foresaw in 1897 what would become the city of Blanding after a vision came to him of a prosperous community in the rugged expanse of desert. Albert R. Lyman, Walter’s cousin, subsequently founded Blanding in 1905 and was its first settler.

“Blanding is here because [the pioneers] were sent . . . to live here at great sacrifice,” Lyman tells us.

His appreciation for the Native American ancestral sites that dot San Juan County’s public lands seems genuine; there is a touch of wonder in his voice as he shares his thoughts.

That impression is at odds with the image of Lyman propagated by the media and held by many locals: that of an anti-government crusader, in their minds associated with states’ rights Sagebrush Rebels determined to take back the land from the federal government and place it under local control. This image was cemented by his now-infamous May 2014 ATV ride into nearby Recapture Canyon to protest BLM policies, a ride which endangered sacred Native American artifacts—baskets, pottery, tools—near sites like the cliff dwelling he is showing us today.  

His protest cost him dearly: ten days in jail, three years’ probation, nearly $100,000 in restitution, and permanent association in the public’s mind with members of the notorious Bundy family. Ryan Bundy, a member of the group that organized the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, joined the Recapture ride in response to Lyman’s postings on social media. Bundy’s presence changed the dynamics. By failing to heed belated entreaties by Lyman and others to stay within the “no trespassing” boundaries set by the BLM, he transformed a mostly peaceful act of civil disobedience into a chaotic vandalizing ride.

Local Utes and Navajos believe that the ATVs desecrated land that has deep cultural meaning for Native peoples: a place to pray, to commune with their ancestors, and to gather herbs for medicinal ceremonies. Lyman, however, claims that he never intended to damage antiquities, disrespect Native peoples, nor harm the environment. Instead, his aim was to protest the Bureau of Land Management’s closure of a road that had been traveled by his Mormon ancestors for generations. He wanted to send an unambiguous message to the BLM that decisions regarding access to local roads should be left to local people. But because he tapped into the passions ignited by the increasingly virulent states’ rights movement, his assertion of county jurisdiction became a national cause celebre.

Puebloan archaeological site
Puebloan archaeological site on the Colorado Plateau. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

“I feel so misunderstood,” Lyman says. “[I’m] put into this box—trespasser, racist, whatever—that I do not belong in.”

After we depart Devil’s Canyon, Lyman takes us to the scene of the crime. We walk gingerly over a cattle guard next to the gate, taking care to walk with toes facing forward lest we become enmeshed in the wide slits.

“This is not against the law, by the way,” he chuckles.

His principled stand against the federal government was about much more than preserving local access to a road, or even protecting Mormon heritage.

“Recapture was just symbolic,” Lyman says. He and many others in San Juan County believe that the federal government, and the BLM in particular, have blood on their hands. The morning of June 10, 2009, FBI agents, in coordination with state BLM officials, raided the homes of suspected looters and antiquities dealers in Blanding, arresting 16 people, including Lyman’s close friend, Dr. James Redd, a well-respected and well-loved physician in the community. The raids were the culmination of a two-year investigation into black market trafficking of Native American artifacts that ensnared 24 suspects across the country.  

Locals recall the raid as dramatic and terrifying, with armed officers in flak jackets leading away non-violent citizens in handcuffs and shackles.

“By 7:30 a.m., it’s all buzzing around,” Lyman says, his speech quickening. “They’re beating down peoples’ doors, pulling them out of their beds. . . . One of my friends, a guy who was 78 years old, was awakened that morning, slammed up against the wall . . . had his hands up in shackles, and [agents] dragged him out onto his front lawn.”

While no one was sentenced to jail, the trauma and shame of their arrest seemingly led Redd and a Santa Fe resident to commit suicide. (The FBI informant also killed himself nine months later.)

Redd’s death devastated the Blanding community. That it apparently resulted from an FBI- and BLM- led operation intensified the narrative of Mormon persecution by the federal government: a narrative that stretches back to the genesis of Mormonism, when both citizen mobs and the U.S. Army strove to annihilate Latter-Day Saints.

Residents who witnessed the raids say the agents acted with excessive force.

“You don’t do that to people,” Lyman says, his eyes narrowing. “Just tell us why it happened. Please explain, why were these people treated this way?”

Many residents of San Juan County hold to a different view, however. Incensed by indifferent or cavalier attitudes toward looting, they believe that those arrested should have served jail time, both as punishment and as warning to would-be lawbreakers that plundering Native ancestral sites has severe consequences.

Dark Canyon
Dark Canyon. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

Lyman dismisses this perspective as a misunderstanding of local culture.

“People who understand who we are and where we live [know that] I can walk out my front door and find pottery out in the cedars,” Lyman says. “This is not a crime, this is what it is.”

In his mind, the Recapture protest was essential to giving public voice to those citizens of Blanding who believed, as he did, that the 2009 raids stripped the town of its dignity, eroded their sense of security, and re-established the federal government as their archenemy. Their opposition to the BLM went far beyond states’ rights or public lands: it went straight to the heart of the community.

The Bundys’ presence, however, vaulted a local protest linked to a very personal history into the national spotlight. In the process, Lyman became a polarizing symbol. To his supporters, he became a folk hero of sorts: states’ rights advocates embossed his face on a T-shirt alongside those of Gandhi and Rosa Parks, conflating Lyman by association with icons of civil disobedience. To his detractors—and there are many—Lyman became the de facto face of San Juan County’s Sagebrush Rebels.

Lyman’s fiercely negative views of the federal government are fundamentally personal, largely ideological, and amplified by the emotional aftermath of the Blanding raids. Many constituents who share his outlook are also alarmed by what they perceive as a threat to their financial livelihood: the possibility that President Obama will imminently declare their homeland a national monument, using his executive authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Obama could use the law, established by Theodore Roosevelt, to permanently protect natural, archaeological, and cultural resources within a 1.9 million-acre tract in San Juan County, thereby precluding new mining claims and oil and gas drilling, draining a potential source of income from industries which were once the lifeblood of San Juan County.

Mining royalties, as many locals will tell you, helped to build the county’s hospitals and roads and once paid teachers the highest salaries in the state. The mining boom did more than bolster the region’s economy; it also gave many San Juan County residents a feeling of confidence and pride that their work had an impact on national prosperity and national security, particularly at the height of the Atomic Age. That feeling has long been dwindling and the possibility of a monument’s further depriving them of their livelihood ignites strong passions.

The implications of a national monument are well known in this region. Many residents of southern Utah felt blindsided and betrayed by what they perceived as a lack of discussion and due process in the 1996 establishment of the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by President Clinton. That proclamation instantly protected 1.8 million acres of federal land from drilling and mineral extraction. When rural Utahans rail against the idea of a national monument, “the Grand Staircase” is inevitably invoked to support their arguments and confirm their fears, despite evidence that the monument may have had a positive impact on surrounding communities.  

The endeavors to find a balance between resource extraction, protection of ancient artifacts, and preservation of natural landscapes is a defining issue in the battle for the future of the American West. Many attempts at brokering compromise have failed. Nevertheless, in early 2013, Utah Republican congressman Rob Bishop invited citizens of eastern Utah to participate in the Public Lands Initiative, once again trying to devise a solution to a decades-long struggle. Bishop’s promise: to use feedback from local people to craft a “grand bargain” that would give all stakeholders a voice. Conservationists had a chance to secure protection for treasured landscapes, and multiple-use proponents had a chance to open trails used for recreation and to keep alive the extractive industry and ranching economy.

Public Lands Initiative map
Land designations proposed by the Public Lands Initiative and boundaries of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument. Click image for larger view.
Map by Stephanie Smith, courtesy Grand Canyon Trust.

The next year, Lyman took on the seemingly unlikely role of spearheading this citizen-led process, inviting a select group of county stakeholders—conservationists, ranchers, ATV enthusiasts, extractive-industry representatives—to serve on a Lands Council tasked with developing a plan for the future of San Juan County’s public lands that would be submitted to Bishop.

Lyman has a reputation as an unyielding opponent to federal intrusion in what he regards as a local issue. Where in his personal history, we wondered, did he develop his motivation to search for common ground?

At age 19, Lyman began his Church mission in South Africa, at the height of attempts to forge a future for South Africa beyond apartheid. He spent his first year in white Afrikaner communities in Johannesburg and his second in the black townships of Soweto. Like most young Mormon elders (as LDS missionaries are called), he says he felt completely unprepared to provide counsel or guidance to an impoverished and persecuted minority group to whom he looked every bit the oppressor. Yet, despite the obvious barriers, he found that he was able to connect with people by simply listening.

“You could tell that there weren’t too many people who had ever sat down in a person’s living room and asked, how do you feel about these things?” Lyman recalls. “And they would just pour their hearts out. It had nothing to do with the missionary who was sitting there. It was that, ‘nobody’s ever knocked on my door and listened to me.’”

Phil Lyman shares his experience as a missionary in South Africa during Apartheid.

“It’s an essential human thing, to be understood by somebody,” Lyman says. Which is why, at least on this particular day, he feels that the factions warring over the future of public lands should declare a truce and devote their energies to finding common ground. “[The] national monument . . . shouldn’t be the big thing on the horizon,” he says. “We should be working toward what’s taking place right here, between one person and another person.”

Yet just weeks after our conversation, Lyman took to Facebook to denounce “lying . . . special interest groups” that support the Bears Ears proposal. And in his spirited defense of Mel Bundy, who along with his father Cliven is in jail following their participation in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Lyman seemed to reject compromise entirely.

“Let’s drop the whole facade of trying to work with our enemies and take a stand for our friends instead,” Lyman wrote. “They took a stand for us.”

Mesas near Bluff, Utah: storm at sunset
Mesas near Bluff, Utah: storm at sunset. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

After a hard rain, the desert releases its secrets. The scent of once-parched plants suffuses the air, water flows through dormant washes and streaks the sandstone cliffs and bluffs, transforming them from subtle buff to luminous tan. A harsh landscape of drama and extremes is temporarily softened as the sheets of rain subside and the yellow-red rays of the sun are diffused by the still-moist air. The landscape becomes still, with water-laden clay, water pockets, and the fragrance of wet earth the only evidence of the passing torrent.

While we stand mesmerized by the fragrant silence, the setting sun breaks through a thick blanket of clouds and bathes the desert landscape outside Bluff in golden light. Drinking in the scene with us is Mark Maryboy, who as a young boy would ride his horse on the far side of the San Juan River and help his family herd sheep. A self-described “traditional Navajo” whose spiritual beliefs are intimately connected to a land that his ancestors have inhabited since time immemorial, Maryboy is tall and slender, his kempt black hair streaked with white. His slow, purposeful gait and serious mien are leavened by a wide smile and a gentle chuckle, which he shares sparingly.

Mark Maryboy
Mark Maryboy.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

He asks us to follow his hand as he gestures toward a tree-lined expanse on the banks of the San Juan River, where he and his seven siblings would bring their sheep to drink, and they would swim while their herd grazed. On these shores the course of his life was set.

“In 1968, Bobby Kennedy came, and he met with [Navajo] elders right there,” Maryboy says. “I was just a young kid running around all over the place, climbing around on those trees. Then all of a sudden, my dad went like this to me”—he pauses, adopting a stern tone and slower cadence—‘Son, all of those old people, they’re going to be gone pretty soon. Listen to them. Listen to what they have to say.’”

“So I sat down for a moment, and watched those old people talk, and I noticed that they were talking about the land,” Maryboy says, naming sacred places in San Juan County and beyond: the Abajo Mountains, Monticello, Moab, the Great Salt Lake, and Bears Ears.

“They told Bobby Kennedy, ‘Those are very important… and the land is who we are,’” he says. “’It’s something that’s sustained us for millions of years…. Never, ever forget us.’”

Mark Maryboy tells the story of his introduction to politics.

Kennedy’s visit inspired Maryboy, as his presence on Navajo land bespoke respect for Native peoples and ignited hope that their voices might be heard by those in power. The eloquent words of his elders kindled a passion for protecting sacred lands and working to have Native voices heard.

Badlands near Red Canyon
Aerial view of badlands near Red Canyon. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

In 1986 Maryboy became the first Navajo elected official in Utah’s history, beginning a 16-year tenure on the San Juan County Commission and a multi-decade career of service in the Navajo Nation government. His passionate advocacy for good schools, passable roads, Native voting rights and representation, and protection of public lands placed him in direct conflict with a few Anglo leaders who did not want a Navajo on the Commission, arguing that Indians “lost the war” and should “go back to the reservation.”

Early on, Maryboy clashed with fellow commissioner, Cal Black, the infamous uranium-prospecting politician who inspired the villainous Bishop Love in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Black’s pro-industry stance ignored the devastation that Navajos, including Maryboy’s father, suffered from exposure to the radioactive uranium-bearing minerals. Black himself died of lung cancer in 1990, after years of working around uranium mines; Maryboy’s father succumbed to lung cancer in 1977.

Maryboy was the lone representative of Native peoples in San Juan County, where the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute reservations comprise nearly a quarter of county land and more than half its population. As such, he bore the brunt of long-festering racial tensions, and the weight of his peoples’ painful history; centuries of non-Native groups, from Spaniards to Mexicans to the U.S. Army to Mormon settlers seizing Navajo land by treaty or by force, or attempting to eliminate Navajo language, culture, and religion through forced assimilation.

The decades of work on behalf of his constituents took its toll, and when he left public office in 2006 he intended to lead a quiet life, free of controversy, focused on family.

But he was called back into service in 2010 and his impact would be powerful. At the time, his younger brother Kenneth was serving on the San Juan County Commission and introduced Maryboy to staff from Round River Conservation Studies, a Utah-based environmental nonprofit that works with communities around the world on wildlife conservation and cultural preservation projects. The organization had funding to work with tribes of the Colorado Plateau to develop strategies for protecting ancestral lands. They asked for Maryboy’s help.

Initially, Maryboy refused. “My biggest hesitation,” he says, “was the fights that I had had every single [County Commission] meeting” about everything from where to hold a baseball game to how to redraw voting district lines. “I knew that this land issue was full of controversy. But the more I looked at it, I felt like I had more experience than everybody else, and I thought, ‘I’ll do it again.’ Train [other people] so they can do what we want to do, and then step aside.”

He accepted the challenge, working to develop an inventory of sites on the Plateau that have past and continuing significance to Navajos, and using this carefully gathered and curated data to advocate for federal protection.

Puebloan archaeological site
Puebloan archaeological site on the Colorado Plateau. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

Maryboy was indefatigable in his efforts to interview tribal elders, the keepers of history and knowledge about sacred sites and plants that have sustained their people, they believe, since time immemorial. Persuading elders to share stories and information about their sacred sites was a delicate process. Many were wary of divulging any traditional knowledge that might be made public out of fear their knowledge would be used by non-Natives to exploit their land.

“Once I explained the purpose, it was very emotional,” Maryboy says. “You might say they were talking deep.”

He listened to their stories, working tenaciously over the course of three years to create maps of cultural resources: ceremonial sites, medicinal plants, places where wood is gathered. They produced a book, Dine Bikeyah (which translates as “Navajoland”), that made a case to the public and policymakers for protection of San Juan County’s public lands either as a national conservation area or a national monument. Their work was endorsed by the late Senator Robert Bennett of Utah, who hoped to apply to San Juan County lessons learned from his successful effort to bring about a compromise solution to another public lands dispute in Utah’s Washington County. Bennett’s defeat in the Tea Party-dominated Utah Republican caucus ended his nascent efforts. Nevertheless, Maryboy persisted and gained the endorsement of the Navajo Nation. In 2012, the group formally created the nonprofit Utah Dine Bikeyah (UDB).

Utah Dine Bikeyah presented its cultural mapping work to Representative Bishop and his staff for inclusion in the Public Lands Initiative process, and simultaneously began to work with Phil Lyman’s San Juan County Lands Council. But Maryboy knew that a grassroots nonprofit alone could not drive the change they sought. What UDB needed was additional support from other sovereign tribal nations.

“We decided to invite other tribes [because] we thought that the government-to-government relationship [tribes have] with the U.S. is an avenue for tribes to speak to the federal government,” Maryboy says.

Over the next year, UDB staff and board members traveled to reservations across the Southwest, making the case to tribal leaders that despite their troubled histories and intense present-day tribe-to-tribe conflicts, they had one thing in common: their cultural, historical, and spiritual attachment to the land in southeastern Utah that was at the heart of their creation and migration stories and their very identity as a people—and their desire to protect it from development and desecration.

The UDB staff and board invited representatives to a gathering in Bluff and an exploration of the Bears Ears landscape. According to several people in attendance at the April 2015 meeting, it took just two simple but profoundly moving words to bring the tribes together:

“We said to the Pueblos [Hopi, Zuni and 19 other New Mexico tribes], ‘Welcome home,’” Maryboy recalls. “You have over 150,000 archaeological sites here. We told them that we’ve done the best we could to take care of those sites, but there are many pothunters, people in the area who have no respect. We need your help. Instantly, the tribes understood.”

Puebloan pictograph
Pictograph site on the Colorado Plateau. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

The Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and the Ute Tribe of Uintah and Ouray, joined by other area tribes, have formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to protect their ancestral lands from the dangers of looting, drilling, and mining, and also to preserve a place that is integral to their cultural history and essential for spiritual survival. The Coalition and the environmental community were at one point open to National Conservation Areas recommended by the Public Land Initiative, but came to believe that plans proposed by the Utah delegation provide insufficient protection of antiquities and lack mechanisms for appropriate tribal input. Frustrated, the Coalition formally withdrew from the PLI process in late December 2015 and devoted their full effort to advancing a proposal for the Bears Ears National Monument. (See the map above showing Land designations proposed by the PLI and boundaries of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument).

Like every conservationist campaign, the Coalition emphasizes the importance of environmental stewardship, but the tribes’ proposal also seeks to accomplish much more: to protect and honor their heritage, to ensure that traditional practices that have sustained their people for generations can continue into the future, to educate visitors to southeastern Utah about Native traditional knowledge and its connection to Western sciences, and to preserve the land as a place of spiritual healing.

Critically, the tribes have proposed an unprecedented system of collaborative management in which representatives of each of the five members of the founding tribal coalition would work alongside representatives from federal agencies—the BLM, U.S. Forest Service, and National Park Service—to make joint decisions about how the monument would be managed.

The practical and symbolic implications of this proposal are profound. For the first time in history, tribes would work as equals with the federal government in determining the fate of their ancestral lands.

For more than two centuries, the federal government has alternately assisted, devastated, and patronized Native peoples. The Bears Ears proposal would be an opportunity to heal that fraught relationship. Natives and Anglos would have the chance to find common ground through shared stewardship of the land they both view as sacred.

Maryboy’s years-long sojourn interviewing tribal elders brings him full circle back to the day in 1968, on the banks of the San Juan, when he listened to the wisdom of those who spoke with one voice about why the land must be protected.

“Everything’s a circle in Navajo,” he says. “Our hogans are round, we have round dance…. Everything goes in a clock-like, circular, holistic motion.”

Salt Creek Canyon in fall from the air
Aerial photo of Salt Creek Canyon in fall. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

The proposal for a national monument with joint tribal-federal government management is inspiring to many within and outside of San Juan County. However, it is deeply troubling to many of Lyman’s constituents who had rallied behind the Public Lands Initiative, a radically different approach to managing the land in which “true locals”—which to them excludes Natives and other citizens outside the county—determine the future of public lands. It is not only Anglos who oppose the monument; a group of Utah Navajos, led by Lyman’s fellow commissioner Rebecca Benally and backed by Utah’s conservative politicians, has also mounted a spirited campaign against the monument proposal. At the same time, the Coalition and environmentalists view the PLI, officially introduced in July 2016, as leaving too much land unprotected while favoring continued activity by extractive industries.

As an elected official and someone who commands respect among many in the community, Lyman would seem to be well positioned to lead efforts aimed at charting a harmonious path forward for San Juan County. By choosing to organize the Recapture ride, however, he became a pariah in the environmental community, broadening the cultural divide between Natives and Anglos and reopening deep historical wounds that will be difficult to heal.

Yet Lyman admits that a monument designation could help, not harm, the county. “I’m an accountant,” he says. “I don’t do books for Exxon Mobil and Dennison Mines, I do books for hotel owners and restaurant owners and guides and people that are tied into the tourism thing. If we want a local economy, you don’t get that by big oil coming in…. As much as I don’t want it to happen, you have to say, if it does, we’ll maybe be better off.”

Lining up in Bluff for a meeting
Lining up in Bluff, Utah, for the July 16, 2016 Bears Ears public meeting. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

On July 16, 2016, over 1,000 people descended on Bluff, quadrupling the town’s population. They lined up in triple-digit heat to make their voices heard at a public hearing featuring Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and the heads of the BLM, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Department of Agriculture: all of the agencies responsible for managing public land in San Juan County. The meeting was the culmination of Jewell’s four-day tour through southeastern Utah, where she explored the contested landscapes at the heart of the Bears Ears battle.

Several hundred people crammed into the Center’s sweltering main room, with the remaining crowd listening to the proceedings outside under a massive tent. Despite the heat, nearly everyone remained for more than three hours as dozens of public officials and citizens stepped up to the microphone and spoke passionately about their love for the land and how best to preserve it—whether through national monument designation or through the Public Lands Initiative.

The mostly civil meeting had its tense moments. Several pro-monument speakers were drowned out by jeers from their opponents, and some speakers choked up as they offered their testimony.

Polarized as they were, people on each side of the debate expressed the same belief: that, to them, the land is not just a place to live, explore, or make a living; it is everything. Land is sacred—linking ancestors, families, future generations, gods, and spirits—and is a source of strength, renewal, and identity.

Speaking in his position as an elected leader, Lyman again made clear his opposition to federal control, proclaiming, “I think we need to think about placing our trust with people who are untrustworthy.”

He addressed his most pointed remarks to the “outsiders” who had traveled from far and wide to advocate for an environmental agenda that many rural communities throughout the West see as a threat to their survival.

“People who come to San Juan County and say how much they love it, how much they admire the mountains and the streams and the canyons and the artifacts,” he said, “but [they] don’t respect the people who live here, who actually live in San Juan County. They cannot claim to love this county and love this area the way that the people who live here love this area.”

“My ancestors lived here for thousands of years,” Mark Maryboy told Secretary Jewell and the panel of federal officials as he shared with them thousands of pro-Bears Ears postcards sent by supporters from across the country. He then smiled and added, “We do trust the federal government. We think they’re wonderful.”

Bears Ears panelists
Bears Ears public meeting panelists (left to right): Neil Kornze (Director, Bureau of Land Management), Jonathan Jarvis (Director, National Park Service), Larry Roberts (Bureau of Indian Affairs), and Sally Jewell (Secretary of the Interior). Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

We drive slowly and silently through Valley of the Gods towards Goosenecks as the sun drifts lower in the western sky, seeking space for quiet contemplation in the landscape that inspires and inhabits us, land that has become part of our story, too. Wild landscapes can heal. The vastness of red rock country compels humility and provides a canvas for imagining a new future—not a forgetting of the past, but a forgiving of it.

So we wonder: When tomorrow comes, can there be an escape from the cycle of conflict and the burden of past wounds? Can a new story begin in the stillness of a desert dawn?

View from Needles Overlook
View from Needles Overlook. Click image for larger view.
Photo by Stephen Strom.



This essay is an excerpt from Views from the Colorado Plateau, a book in progress by Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom (George F. Thompson Press). Views combines visual evocation of the stark beauty of the Colorado Plateau with portraits of individuals whose history informs the current battles over the future of federal lands on the Plateau, including the Bears Ears of San Juan County, Utah.

More than 50 individual stories and perspectives inform chapters in Views from the Colorado Plateau. In this excerpt, Robinson and Strom introduce us to two individuals who vivify the ongoing conflict regarding public land use in southeast Utah: Phil Lyman and Mark Maryboy. Their voices capture the range of cultural and emotional complexities characterizing the debate over the future of southeastern Utah’s public lands.


What are Public Lands?

Agencies of the federal government administer 640 million acres (down from a peak of 1.8 billion acres) on behalf of all U.S. citizens, representing about a quarter of the total land area of the United States. The primary agencies responsible for overseeing these lands are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS) and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), all housed in the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The fraction of public land is highest in the Mountain West, and ranges from 30 percent in Colorado to 81 percent in Nevada. In Utah, 63 percent of the land is administered by agencies of the federal government.

National Parks are designed to “to conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” They are designated as parks by acts of Congress and managed by the National Park Service

National Monuments protect public lands via proclamation by the President of the United States under the executive powers granted him or her under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Antiquities Act was enacted in response to rampant looting of Native artifacts and archaeological sites, and empowered the President to set aside monuments to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” Monuments can be administered by the NPS, BLM, USFS, FWS, Department of Defense, or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, individually or jointly. The level of protection offered by a monument varies. In most monuments, livestock grazing is permitted, though often with significant restrictions. Mining activities are permitted so long as such activities do not cause significant degradation. No new mining claims can be issued once a monument is declared.

The Bears Ears proposal would have the president declare a national monument, with management shared between the federal government and members of the tribal coalition. Many residents of San Juan County oppose monument designation primarily because it represents to them a solution imposed by one person: the President.

National Conservation Areas are designated by Congress to conserve, protect, and manage public lands for the benefit of current and future generations. Factors which enter into consideration when deciding to declare an NCA include cultural, ecological, historical, scientific, and recreational values.

The level of protection offered by NCAs varies. Typically, management plans are developed over a period of years via consultation with the public at large and key stakeholders. Livestock grazing and mining can usually continue, subject the regulations spelled out in either the enabling legislation or the management plan. The BLM is the agency most frequently charged with managing NCAs.

The Utah Public Lands Initiative is advocating for a national conservation area for Bears Ears. Many residents of San Juan County believe that an NCA managed with strong local input represents a local solution to what they regard as their lands. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and many in the environmental community were at one point open to NCA designation, but believe that plans proposed by the Utah delegation provide insufficient protection of antiquities and lack mechanisms for appropriate tribal input.

Wilderness Areas, according to the Wilderness Act of 1964 “are area(s) where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness areas provide the strongest protection of public lands among the above entities: logging, mining, and motorized vehicles are not permitted, although in some areas, livestock grazing and mining are allowed if they antedate the declaration of the wilderness area. Some areas permit regulated hunting. A major objection to the current draft of the Utah Public Lands Initiative is that while it adds some new wilderness areas, it also permanently excludes large tracts of land from future consideration as wilderness.


Rebecca Robinson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer. She has written for numerous print and online news outlets about crime, education, health care, social entrepreneurs, California’s prisons, state and federal medical marijuana laws, and homelessness, among other topics. She began her work on the manuscript for Views from the Colorado Plateau at the 2015 Fishtrap Summer Gathering of Writers. Currently a freelancer, Rebecca previously worked as a staff writer for Monterey County Weekly and a radio producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Stephen Strom spent 45 years as a research astronomer after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in astronomy from Harvard. He began photographing in 1978, after studying the history of photography and silver and non-silver photography at the University of Arizona. His work has been exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and is held in several permanent collections, including the Center for Creative Photography and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His photography complements poems and essays in three books published by the University of Arizona Press–Secrets from the Center of the World, Sonoita Plain, and Tseyi / Deep in the Rockand Otero Mesa (University of New Mexico Press, 2008). A monograph, Earth Forms, was published in 2009 by Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Header photo of Bears Ears by Stephen Strom. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.