Push on to protect Bears Ears
Unlikely allies call for monument designation of 1.9 million acres of world-class climbing, cultural sites
Five tribes whose ancestors once hunted the canyon country of eastern Utah, who their descendants say still haunt those rocks, have joined forces with unlikely allies in urging a new national monument in Utah.
The tribes are joined by newcomers who see fun, challenge and solitude in those same rugged places.
The various players in the proposal to establish a 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument are joined together by new recreational opportunities and age-old traditions of the rough country.
Bears Ears gets its name from a pair of bluffs that conjure up the image of an approaching bear.
Opponents of the monument proposal also have long memories, as well as different views of how to manage the steep walls of twisting ochre canyons that are a hallmark of the northernmost reaches of the monument proposal.
President Bill Clinton’s 1996 designation of the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without consulting local officials still rankles, said Jonathan Cox, spokesman for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
Backers of the Bears Ears monument gathered last week with the aid of Aspen-based EcoFlight at Canyonlands Airport to fly over the northernmost portion of the proposed national monument, in hopes that they can get the ear of President Obama to extol the Bears Ears area.
The idea of a national monument grew out of a gathering of the tribes — the Navajo, Utes, Ute Mountain Utes, Hopi, and Zuni — in response to a bill by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, that would set aside 1.2 million acres in a national conservation area.
What the monument proponents want, however, is recognition — recognition of the tribes’ historical connection to the lands and recognition of the recreational and economic potential of rock climbing there.
Supporters are hoping that any monument proclamation includes mention of rock climbing as an important, recognized, activity.
Cornell Tsalat, a Zuni medicine man from Zuni, New Mexico, said the monument would keep the land as it is and has been since his forebears set foot in the ruddy desert dust.
“Our ancestors lived around here for centuries, for time immemorial,” Tsalat said. “We never left these places.”
The turquoise prized by Zunis and other tribes is a sign that Zunis have been — and still are — present, Tsalat said.
Monument designation would go far to underscore the importance of the high mesas and canyons that hold at least 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites.
Rock climbers also feel a bond with the territory, though for different reasons, said Caroline Gleich, a professional athlete and rock climber from Salt Lake City.
“There is such an emotional connection to the rocks” for climbers, who search them for handholds and footholds, Gleich said.
The Indian Creek region around Six Shooter peaks is hallowed territory for climbers.
A climber visiting France need only mention having ascended “the Creek” to be immediately understood as having climbed Indian Creek, Gleich said.
From the air, the Wingate sandstone — the remains of sand dunes dating back to the late Triassic Period 200 million years ago, when the first dinosaurs were exploring the earth — looks like orange- and red-edged jigsaw pieces scattered about in uneven, rumpled fashion against a green and khaki backdrop.
From below, the steep walls of the canyons feature remarkably consistent vertical cracks that allow climbers to scramble up with a minimum of equipment, Gleich said.
Climbers want to work with the tribes, Gleich said, down to groups approaching a wall by following in one another’s footsteps so as to disturb as little an area as possible, and by packing out their own waste.
Climbers also would respect areas deemed out of bounds by the tribes, she said.
Climbers, in addition, could be a separate set of watchers for the tribes, helping them locate ancient, long-forgotten sites or similar activities, Gleich said.
The two groups share a disdain for energy development within the proposed Bears Ears monument borders.
Development for energy and potash — used in the production of fertilizers — is deemed to be the biggest threat to the area, especially on Hatch Point, which sits between Indian Creek and the snowcapped La Sal Mountains to the east.
For climbers, Gleich said, development would be an unwelcome disturbance of the isolation and connection with nature that can be found among the rocky walls.
Coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, “It’s there for a purpose” inside Mother Earth and ought to be left alone, said Tsalat.
The Zuni people “don’t want that disturbed,” Tsalat said, adding with a smile, “That’s more than likely why we don’t have casinos.”
Getting the five tribes to agree on a common goal — Tsalat nodded when the task was compared to peace breaking out among fans at a Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders football game — was no small feat.
Joining the tribes with climbers could be a potent political force, though.
There are 3 million to 6 million climbers in the United States, a potentially significant voting bloc, said Erik Murdock, policy director for the Access Fund, which was founded to support access to climbing locations.
It’s a more natural alliance than it might appear, said Octavias Seowtewa, also a Zuni medicine man.
“Before there was a Utah or Arizona, there was one vast land that our people used,” Seowtewa said. “Look at it this way, our ancestors were the first climbers.”