Archaeologists petition Obama for monument

Hannah Grover,
A petroglyph of a crane is pictured in the Bears Ears region of southeast Utah in this undated courtesy image.
  • Archaeologists: National monument designation could prevent looting, vandalism in southeast Utah.
  • County officials and archaeologists have different opinions about the severity of looting, vandalism.

FARMINGTON — How a 1.9 million-acre parcel in southeast Utah dotted with archaeological and historical sites is managed has been a source of contention for years. Now, with less than one year left of Barack Obama's presidency, multiple groups have petitioned him to declare the land — known as the Bears Ears region — a national monument. 

The latest push comes from a group of more than 700 archaeologists who have signed a letter to the president asking him to create a national monument if Congress does not pass a bill adequately protecting the area's fragile archaeological sites.

The monument proponents cite looting and vandalism as a reason to create the national monument. But San Juan County (Utah) Commissioner Phil Lyman argues that those issues are minimal, considering the large amount of land involved.

Archaeologist Bill Lipe said he wants to see the region protected, whether through national monument designation or through congressional action. Two congressmen have drafted a bill to protect 1.1 million acres in the Bears Ears region. The main difference between the proposals is that the draft bill works to balance economic development and preservation while the monument status would be more oriented toward preservation, Lipe said.

President Obama has been asked by a group of archaeologists to designate the Bears Ears region in southeast Utah a national monument.

“Either approach would be better than what’s out there now,” he said.

The land is currently managed by multiple agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Lipe said the agencies have not been able to adequately protect the sites because of a lack of funding.

“They do a good job with limited resources,” he said.

The BLM has teamed up with Friends of Cedar Mesa, a conservation-oriented nonprofit organization, to create a monetary reward system for information leading to prosecution of looters and vandals of the archaeological sites. People can call the BLM Resource Protection Hotline in Utah at 1-800-722-3998 to report damage, according to a BLM press release.

Lyman said a national monument designation for the area could spur additional tourism in San Juan County, which already benefits from tourism generated by a national monument. The Natural Bridges National Monument, located west of Blanding, Utah, attracted nearly 95,000 visitors in 2015. 

“The truth is national monuments are potentially really great things,” Lyman said.

Natural Bridges National Monument, pictured here in May 2014, could be incorporated into the proposed Bears Ears National Monument.

But he said he is concerned about how the land would be managed.

“My gripe is more with the federal agency that would be entrusted with management,” Lyman said.

Lyman was referring to the BLM, which is one of the agencies identified in the proposal to cooperatively manage the monument. Lyman has clashed with the BLM in the past and was convicted of trespassing and conspiracy in December in connection with leading a protest ATV ride on a closed trail.

Lyman said the movement to create a national monument should come from the local area. Many of the residents of San Juan County, including a group of Navajo residents, have opposed the proposal. In January, a group of Utah Navajo expressed their opposition to the proposed national monument during the Navajo Nation Council session in Window Rock, Ariz.

Lyman said local residents have supported the Natural Bridges National Monument. In the 1960s, local groups, including the County Commission, campaigned to extend the boundaries of the Natural Bridges National Monument. That expansion, which was approved in 1962, more than doubled the size of the national monument and brought sites like the Bear Ladder Ruin and a collapsed natural bridge known as Fallen Monarch into the boundaries of the Natural Bridges National Monument.

“We are the most sensitive to the area,” Lyman said. “It’s our backyards.”

An aerial view of the southeastern edge of Cedar Mesa is pictured just after sunrise in the Bears Ears region of Utah.

The proposed Bears Ears National Monument would include the current Natural Bridges National Monument. Archaeologists say the national monument designation would provide more protection from looters, especially commercial looters.

The dry climate, and sheltered canyons and alcoves of the area have preserved many of the archaeological sites, allowing people to “essentially look in on the houses of people who lived there 800 years ago,” Lipe said.

While an archaeologist follows a set of rules and documents even small items while exploring such a site, looters dig specifically to find certain items, he said.

“A looter can go through a site that would take an archaeologist weeks if not months to go through in a day,” Lipe said.

Other people pick up artifacts while having picnics or exploring canyons, he said.

“These archaeological sites, these artifacts, are the footprints of our people,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Cultural Preservation Office for the Hopi Tribe, in a press release from the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. “We do not see these sites as ‘ruins’ or as being abandoned. The spirits of our ancestors still inhabit the Bears Ears. When these sites are looted or damaged, not only our history but our future is disrespected.”

Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Butler Wash in the Bears Ears region are pictured in May 2014.

In the letter to Obama, archaeologists state that there have been several dozen incidents of looting and vandalism in the past two years. Friends of Cedar Mesa cites several incidents of damage to cultural sites, including a petroglyph partially removed in January from a wall near Bluff, Utah; rock art vandalized in March, a fire ring built in March using rocks from an archaeological site and a wall at another site being knocked over, possibly by a cow, about two years ago. 

“Any incident is a problem — even cows knocking over a wall is a problem,” Lyman said.

An email that San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge sent to county commissioners in May reported that, since 2011, there have been four documented thefts and 11 reports of vandalism.

Eldredge informed commissioners of two criminal cases involving excavation or removal of archaeological resources.

"With tens of thousands of sites within our 8,000-square-mile county, I would say that the looting is extremely minimal," Eldredge told commissioners in the email. "In comparison, if law enforcement stops tens of thousands of cars over 8,000 square miles and only comes up with two drunk drivers, I would say that drunk driving was not a problem."

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.