Bears Ears National Monument, named after its two iconic buttes, contains land used for open range cattle farming, various outdoor recreation activities, cultural Native American rituals, and numerous other practices.
BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT
What is a national monument? These are valuable areas of specific natural, cultural, or historic features that are normally smaller than national parks. Through the Antiquities Act of 1906, the president has the power to designate protected lands for various reasons. Due to the definition's subjective nature, national monuments' value to society varies greatly between them.
Bears Ears National Monument contains a beautifully diverse landscape including numerous petroglyphs, historical artifacts, as well as one of the most complete paleontological fossil records that shows the rise of vertebrates dating back around 300 million years ago. The natural landscapes in Bears Ears are quite diverse and range from an intricate system of desert canyons in the Grand Gulch area to alpine lakes within the Manti-La Sal National Forest.
Newspaper Rock and remnants of Anasazi domestic life found deep within the Grand Gulch (unprotected).
Efforts to protect Bears Ears began as early as 1930, but federal protection was granted only recently in 2016 when five Native American tribes created the unprecedented Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. To these tribes and the thirty others voicing support, the land is considered sacred. Many sites within the monument are still used for religious and healing ceremonies, and the same grounds are also an invaluable source of medicinal herbs and plants that are used for these cultural practices.
"The Bears Ears land is a unique cultural place where we visit and practice our traditional religions for the purpose of attaining or resuming health for ourselves, human communities, and our natural world as an interconnected and inextricable whole." - Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition
Unfortunately, the hard-fought protection was short lived. The current administration chose to review all National Monuments designated since 1996 for size reduction, a power traditionally left to Congress. After only a year of protection, the area of the monument has recently been reduced by 85 percent - about 1.15 million acres.
Courtesy of The New York Times
On May 25th, fellow photographer Matt Villante and I set off to personally experience the Bears Ears environment. After backcountry canyoneering, nights illuminated only by starscape, and rich cultural immersion we believe that the now unprotected land holds an incredible value that is advantageous to the human experience through recreational and sustainable uses.
We originally planned to just pass through Valley of the Gods (unprotected). An exploding sky over Monument Valley on the horizon led us to stay.
Unique rock pinnacles and buttes surround the entire 17-mile dirt path throughout Valley of the Gods
Finally resting after hiking deep into the Grand Gulch Canyon (unprotected), Matt makes the final preparations for our backcountry campsite
After climbing the steep switchbacks of the Moki Dugway (unprotected), a road originally carved to transport ore, Matt and I took in the expansive views of Valley of the Gods below.
Southern Utah is characterized by red rock and desert canyons, but Matt and I found our own oasis up in the mountains of the Manti-La Sal National Forest (protected).
What do these changes mean? The reduction of Bears Ears National Monument coincided with a reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, previously about 1.7 million acres protected over two decades ago under the Clinton Administration. Together, about 1.85 million acres of land is now unprotected. Land containing hiking and mountain biking trails, indigenous cultural and archaeological sites, and many other public uses is now up for sale. For environmentalists, one of the most prominent worries is the impact of extraction companies that are now able to lease the land.
Arguably an even bigger worry is the precedent that is being set with the current policy regarding the future reduction of public lands. In an increasingly urbanized world, the importance of preserving natural ecosystems is greater than ever.
Among the long drives out west and back, Matt and I were able to visit some public lands still under protection. Appreciative of their beauty and natural state, we hope they stay that way.
The stunning tranquility of White Sands National Monument - a unique place known both as the world's largest gypsum dunefield and an active US missile range.
We didn't miss a sunset and were heavily rewarded for it. White Sands (left) Glenn Canyon (right)
While wandering the rim of the Moki Dugway, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area surprised us as we found an overlook.
Having spent most of our lives on the East Coast, we were especially drawn to the incredible rock formations of the West. Shiprock, NM (left) Canyon de Chelly National Monument (right)
It's important that I express that this is my interpretation of the topic. I've listened and learned about both sides of the debate on the protection of Bears Ears and public lands in general, and I recommend others to do the same. Above all else, I encourage everyone to experience public lands first hand to form their own opinions.