Learning to visit Bears Ears National Monument with respect and protect the public lands we all love

Bear Ears National Monument as seen from above.Adriel Heisey
Splitter Weather

I first visited the Indian Creek unit of Bears Ears in 2016. A newer climber, I was excited to accompany my experienced partner on a trip out the sandstone splitters for which the area is world famous. After a solid flail up Fine Jade on my first desert tower, I spent the next few weeks earning gobies as I learned to crack climb on Wingate sandstone. 

Following the footsteps of many Creek climbers before me, I spent days testing my limits and nights crowded around a campfire with new friends. Vast, ancient skies yawned above me, and warm, cut-to-fit cracks held me in their embrace. Quickly, breathlessly, I fell in love with this place.

I’m not the only one with a soft spot for ‘the desert.’ Millions of visitors flock to Moab, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Indian Creek every year for rock climbing — as much as mountain biking, off-roading, ATVing, hiking and much, much more. So what’s the problem, you ask?

Bears Ears National Monument and Everyone’s Stewardship

The 1.35 million contiguous acres originally set aside for Bears Ears National Monument spans the lands from the San Juan River in the south and along the Colorado River to Canyonlands National Park and the La Sal Mountains to the northeast.

One of the most extensive archaeological areas on Earth, Bears Ears is a vibrant living landscape of people and cultures with over 12,000 years of Native stewardship precedent in its canyons, hoodoos, fins, ravines and cliffs. Because the founders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — the Diné (Navajo), Hopi, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni nations — all share such profound historical, spiritual and cultural ties to these places, it was at their behest that former President Obama originally designated these public lands as a monument in 2016.

But the Trump Administration’s reduction of the Monument by 85% just eleven months later left a vacuum of protection, putting hundreds of thousands of acres of land at risk of development, vandalism, looting and unmanaged visitation. Without designated land stewards (who help ensure lands and ecosystems can remain as healthy as the people interacting with them), Bears Ears visitors can unwittingly harm thousands of years of human record with a single stumbled footstep or stashed momento.

While the world waits for an outcome to lawsuits challenging the legality of the Trump Administration’s reduction to the monument’s size, the Bears Ears Education Center (BEEC) in Bluff, Utah, reminds us: “The power of preserving this outstanding landscape is in your hands.” It is time we all take up the mantle of stewardship. 

Visit with Respect: Every Visitor’s Opportunity

“Visiting with respect for me means ensuring that this vast history of human experience and civilization will be there for generations to come,” said Len Necefer, Ph.D., assistant professor of American Indian Studies and Public Policy at Arizona State University. 

Necefer is also the founder of Natives Outdoors, and a member of the Navajo Nation.

With “an increase in damage by well-intentioned visitors unaware of proper etiquette around cultural sites, vandalism and pot shard collecting magnify the effects of open range cattle and off-road vehicles,” said Josh Ewing, Executive Director of the BEEC.

For this reason and more, the Bears Ears Education Center (founded by the Friends of Cedar Mesa) spearheaded a Visit with Respect educational initiative, empowering fans of the desert to honor the land as much as they love it. 

Leave All Artifacts

Leave only footprints, take only photos. Leave artifacts like pottery pieces, stone tools and rock flakes exactly where you find them. Help other visitors like you learn about the implements and artifacts of Ancestral Pueblo life. Removing artifacts and other remains from public lands means others won’t get to have the same experience you do. 

If you choose to remove artifacts from cultural, spiritual and archeological sites, you’re following in the footsteps of looters and colonizers who’ve contributed to centuries of Indigenous peoples’ erasure. By adding to your rock or pottery shard collection, you can also receive a fine of up to $250,000 or ten years in prison.

Bears Ears Pictograph Rock Art Visit with Respect
Pictographs (paintings on a rock surface) like this the ones shown here will disappear if we touch them with our bare hands or take rubbings.Bruce Hucko
Don’t Touch or Harm Rock Art (or Make Your Own)

Rock art like pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (pecked) are inspiring, but they are not a call for you to express your inner artist. Save that for your journal back at camp! Oils from our skin can discolor and eventually obliterate ancient designs. 

Don’t Build Cairns or Rockstacks

Keep the landscape natural, and leave only footprints, says the BEEC. While they may seem helpful, cairns disturb the archeological record, and might even unintentionally be constructed from grinding or shrine stones near a site.

Camp and Eat Away from Archeology

Save the mystery for your hike: camp away from archaeological sites to better preserve them. Don’t forget to pack out all waste — including your food scraps, which can take many years to biodegrade.

Pack Out the Poop

Creating and leaving human and animal waste isn’t just disrespectful to archeological, cultural and spiritual sites: it’s also gross!

Pick up a free wag bag (for easy waste removal) at the Bears Ears Education Center (located at 567 W Main St, Bluff, 84512). Be sure to call ahead though; COVID restrictions mean that the Center doesn’t keep the same public hours as before. Reach BEEC staff at (435) 672-2402.

Keep Pets Leashed, Away from Archeology

Fido doesn’t have to stay at home, but (s)he must be leashed, and stay out of archaeological sites. Their digging doesn’t just erode the landscape around these sites; they could also disturb burial and spiritual sites where ancestors have been laid to rest.

Bears-Ears-Rock-Art-and-Structure-Photo-by Jonathan-Bailey
Intaglio (negative) hand print images like the ones seen above this depopulated structure “are one of the most visible and fragile cultural resources in Utah and have been subject to vandalism and destruction” according to the BEEC.Jonathan Bailey
Steer Clear of Walls

The hand-hewn walls and depopulated structures visible at many archeological sites have been standing for thousands of years — so it’s easy to damage them. Keep your COVID distance from structures: don’t lean, climb, stand or sit on structures or walls.

Don’t Bust the Crust

The beginning of life in the desert, cryptobiotic crust (also known as “biological soil crust”) minimizes erosion and provides plants with a sheltered matrix upon which to grow. Soil crust takes many years to grow (and regenerate), and staying on the trail will help the desert thrive for many years to come.

GPS Reveals Too Much

Geotagging in the backcountry can be problematic: it’s easy for people to get lost without marked trails or services, and lands here suffer astronomical impact without land managers to guide hikers, bikers and motorized visitors. Unfortunately, geotagging has empowered people with malintent to loot and vandalize, too.

Tag the @CedarMesaFriends to help future visitors find trails, backcountry information and historical context. Have something you think the world needs to see? Tag @BearsEarsCoalition to support the diffusion of the five tribes’ ancestral knowledge.

Leave Grinding in the Past

Grinding rocks or using stone implements like mortars and pestles (also known as manos and metates) removes the protective patina these pieces need to stand the test of time. 

Your Words Matter

Adesbah Foguth (she/her) reminds us that archeological sites and structures aren’t ‘ruins’ or ‘abandoned’. Rather, they are depopulated. In “Western culture, abandoned ruins are ownerless and therefore fair game for the taking, said Foguth. “This idea of abandonment has led to the dispossession of our lands and our cultural heritage.” 

The descendents of Bears Ears are alive and well, and we can honor their living culture and journeys by calling sites ‘depopulated’.

Foguth, a federal park ranger, archaeologist and creator of the @native_power_rangers community (which educates the public about Indigenous archaeology, history, and highlights other Indigenous park rangers in the United States) wants us to breathe life into how we interact with ancestral sites. “I use the phrase ‘material culture’ instead of ‘artifacts’ ‘objects’ or ‘items,’ since these words cannot convey the living and sentient nature of ancient buildings and objects,” said Foguth. 

When we talk about material culture as non living elements of the past, we turn them into commodities, items to be consumed. Remember high school Economics? Commodities are scarce resources. People and culture are not commodities. 

“Material culture is a more neutral way of describing our cultural objects without rendering it lifeless or portraying it as a mere object of value,” explained Foguth.

Depopulated Mesa Top Structure and Bears Ears Buttes
A depopulated structure sits atop a mesa with the Bears Ears buttes in the background.Josh Ewing

After recently taking the Friends of Cedar Mesa’s Visit With Respect Ambassador Training, I’m excited to integrate these learnings into my desert ethos. One of my biggest takeaways from the experience: the process of interacting with these spaces will always be filled with learning, and we’re fortunate to have relatives of the inhabitants of these spaces alive today who are willing to share their knowledge — if I’m willing to ask and learn.

In a letter to President Trump beseeching to “Make America Great” and honor the Bears Ears original designation, Willie Grayeyes, Utah Diné Bikéyah Board Chairman and San Juan County Commissioner writes: “By honoring the land, you will honor all people who serve as stewards of these public lands. Everyone has a stake here, but for us as Native Americans these are lands we call home. We live an Indigenous truth here and we are ready to share what we have learned over the past 12,000 years as we chart a path forward together.”

The future remains uncertain, but there is one thing we can all do to build a better world: share community, and treat each other with respect.