Prose by Rebecca Robinson
Photographs by Stephen Strom
New to the Bears Ears saga? Read the August 2016 feature by Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom on the people and politics behind the monument creation and opposition. Also, be sure to visit their website: BearsEarsCountry.com.
When we spoke with residents of Bluff, Utah last month about their decision to incorporate as a town, the original Bears Ears National Monument established in December 2016 by Barack Obama was still intact. Bluff, a tiny community of 250 or so people in Utah’s southeastern corner that lay just outside the monument, was still widely expected to become the de facto gateway to Bears Ears. But that was before the Trump trip.
On December 4, President Donald Trump traveled to the Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City to sign an Executive Order shrinking Bears Ears by 85 percent, from 1.35 million acres to just over 200,000 acres. The remaining land was split into two smaller monuments: Indian Creek, near the northern boundary of the original monument, and Shash Jaa’—“Bears Ears” in the Navajo language—along the original monument’s southeastern edge. The president also shrank another Utah monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante, from 1.7 million acres to just over one million acres.
Suddenly, the Bluff community’s quiet conversations about its own future were overshadowed by the national outcry over Trump’s actions—and by the celebration of some of their northern neighbors in Blanding and Monticello. The San Juan County Commissioners came out in strong support of Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears, with Commissioner Rebecca Benally, whose district includes Bluff, speaking at Trump’s event in Salt Lake City.
The tribes that comprise the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition—Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute, whose leaders successfully advocated for the creation of the monuments—were outraged by Trump’s executive order, calling it a “slap in the face” and filing multiple lawsuits against his administration.
Friends of Cedar Mesa executive director Josh Ewing has found himself at the center of both the national controversy over Bears Ears and the local efforts to shape Bluff’s future.
Friends has joined a lawsuit against the Trump administration along with such plaintiffs as Conservation Lands Foundation, the outdoor retail company Patagonia, and Utah Diné Bikéyah, the grassroots Native-led organization whose work laid the foundation for the tribes’ national monument proposal. The lawsuit, one of five filed in the days after Trump moved to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, pits Ewing and his fellow conservationists against the Trump supporters in San Juan County who cheered the President’s action as a victory for local people.
Soon after Obama designated the original Bears Ears National Monument, signs started popping up all over Bluff declaring the community of 130-some-odd people the “proud gateway to Bears Ears.” But if Bears Ears is no more, what does that portend for Bluff—and for the vision of land protection the tribes fought so hard to achieve?
Ewing, his board, and the tribes have a plan.
Just before Trump’s announcement regarding Utah’s now-reduced monuments, Friends launched a campaign to fund a Bears Ears Visit with Respect Visitor Center. The goal: “to raise $840,000 for an urgently needed venue to inspire respectful visitation of the new Bears Ears National Monument.”
The Bears Ears Coalition’s national monument proposal called for a similar center. The Traditional Knowledge Institute, if built, would educate visitors on the connection between Western science and indigenous peoples’ traditional ecological knowledge, as well as provide information on each tribe’s ancestral and modern-day connection to the Bears Ears region and how their spiritual beliefs inform land stewardship.
The tribes may yet realize their ambition. For now, though, there is an immediate need to educate visitors about why the Native American archaeological sites in the area are so important, and how to visit and enjoy them without doing permanent damage. That’s where Friends comes in.
“We might as well start planning so we don’t wait for five years while things are in the courts,” Ewing says.
Ewing says he initially hatched the idea for the Visit with Respect Visitor Center with other interested Friends supporters last spring.
“We started out with ‘wouldn’t it be great if… but that will never happen’ sort of ideas,” Ewing recalls. Then, he proposed taking over a long-shuttered bar in Bluff frequented by uranium miners in decades past.
“A donor said, okay, I’ll put in the first $30,000,” Ewing says. “We started talking to other funders,” and more people came on board. Eventually, Friends developed its Kickstarter campaign. Despite concerns of some Friends of Cedar Mesa board members about the style of the campaign, in the first ten days Friends raised more than $164,000. The Kickstarter page reports that they now have funds to purchase and renovate the building in Bluff and are continuing to raise funds to create exhibits.
“Honestly, part of this came out of a process of elimination,” Ewing says. “How can we help protect this landscape? There’s a massive amount of controversy, tons of visitors are coming, looting’s already an issue… we thought, what can we do?”
“Last season was bananas,” Ewing adds, referring to the high tourist season of spring through early fall 2017. “We need to be doing something to educate visitors as soon as this spring. There’s a real urgency there for me to get working on this as we go, and hopefully pass the torch” to the tribes and others invested in building the aspirational Traditional Knowledge Institute.
Ewing and Friends of Cedar Mesa staff and board members have a longstanding relationship with the tribes of the Bears Ears Coalition and the individuals on the newly established Bears Ears Tribal Commission, the tribal group tasked with defending the monument and developing a management plan for the land.
“We have worked with them for years, we supported their vision for the monument, and we have worked with them [after the designation] to get management planning started,” Ewing says. “I took the idea to the Commission, telling them what we wanted to do and how we wanted to work with them. We understand that it’s a short- to-medium-term solution to needs that we know exist.”
Per the project website, Friends of Cedar Mesa plans to work with the Bears Ears Tribal Commission “to give the tribes a voice in telling the story of the monument and inspiring visitors to respect [the land].”
Given the current administration’s attitude toward land protection and management, it is highly unlikely that Congress will provide ample funding for the BLM and other agencies for stewardship and education programs. Which makes the Visit with Respect Education Center the best place for visitors to the area to learn about tribal history and culture and the first line of defense against the inadvertent destruction of the landscape.
At the same time, the Center could cement Bluff as the ideal destination for those who want to learn more about Bears Ears, and could continue Bluff’s transformation from a blink-and-you’ll-miss it town along Highway 163 to a haven for travelers seeking something more inviting and meaningful than chain motels and bus tours.
Ewing sees the Education Center as a way for tribes and engaged citizens to move forward in a positive direction while litigation makes its way through the courts.
“This place is too special to not do everything we can,” Ewing says.
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 Rock—and Otero Mesa (University of New Mexico Press, 2008). A monograph, Earth Forms, was published in 2009 by Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Header photo of clouds by Stephen Strom.