Trump monuments order targets Canyons of the Ancients

National monument outside Cortez, Colo., is one of 24 that could lose protected status after review by interior secretary

Hannah Grover,
Archaeologist Radoslaw Palonk from the Jagiellonia University in Krakow, Poland, left, examines an artifact with Canyons of the Ancients archaeologist Vince Macmillan. The Saddle Horn Pueblo along the Sand Canyon Trail is in the background.
  • Trump signed an executive order asking the secretary of the interior to review national monument designations.
  • Clinton designated Canyons of the Ancients National Monument using the Antiquities Act in 2000.
  • Oil and gas developers, as well as ranchers, opposed the designation.
  • Visitors were disappointed by Trump's order and said they support the national monuments.

CORTEZ, COLO. — The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is one of the 24 monuments targeted in President Donald Trump's order calling for a sweeping review by the secretary of the interior to determine whether they should keep their protected status. 

Canyons of the Ancients, just west of Cortez, Colo., features the largest concentration of archaeological sites in the country, according to the Bureau of Land Management. When it was designated in 2000 by former President Bill Clinton, it faced opposition from oil and gas developers as well as ranchers.

Farmington resident John Byrom was one of the oil and gas developers to protest BLM plans for the national monument. Reached by phone Friday, Byrom said he is not opposed to all national monuments, but some have been designated despite opposition from surrounding communities. He said Trump's executive order could allow more community input about monuments like Canyons of the Ancients or the recently designated Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah.

On Wednesday, Trump ordered a issued the executive order on Wednesday calling for a review of national monuments that cover more than 100,000 acres that were designated by presidents since 1996 using the Antiquities Act. 

Byrom said removing the designation would likely not have a lot of short-term impact because there is not currently a lot of drilling in the monument and its surrounding area. However, Byrom said increased flexibility could help development in the future.

"That's an area that still has potential for oil and gas," Byrom said.

Marc Smith of Durango, Colo., rides near the Sand Canyon trailhead at the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument near Cortez, Colo.

He said the local farmers and the oil and gas industry have been frustrated over the years with the restrictions that the national monument created. While the designation left the monument open to the existing uses, including oil and gas and grazing, Byrom said it became harder to operate within its boundaries.

"Canyons of the Ancients just made it more difficult to work on the wells you had," he said.

Byrom said if the monument designation is removed, the land would remain under federal control and would still have regulations protecting the sensitive archaeological sites and nesting birds.

Marietta Eaton, the manager of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and the Anasazi Heritage Center, said she does not know how Trump's order could affect the national monument, but no matter what happens the BLM will continue to welcome visitors.

"It's BLM land," she said. "It's not going to stop being BLM land."

She encouraged people to explore the national monument and visit the Anasazi Heritage Center, where an exhibit features Eaton's great-grandfather, Richard Wetherill, an amateur archaeologist who is famous for his work at Chaco Canyon.

Rock formations along the Sand Canyon Trail at the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in  Cortez, Colo.

The Bureau of Land Management manages Canyons of the Ancients in consultation with 26 tribes. Eaton said many of these tribes consider Canyons of the Ancients their ancestral homeland.

In addition to working at Canyons of the Ancients, Eaton worked at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument shortly after its designation by Clinton. There, she gathered oral histories about the area that are now stored at Southern Utah University. She said the project allowed her to learn about the values of the people who have historical and cultural ties to the monument.

While the national monument designation received local backlash, Eaton said she did not feel animosity about it. Instead, she said she felt a lot of community support about the work the BLM was doing.

Similarly, she has felt community support for Canyons of the Ancients. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez partnered with the Anasazi Heritage Center and the national monument for an outdoor museum experience at Lowry Pueblo, one of the monument's most famous sites. Fourth-graders from local schools participate and learn about botany, archaeology and math.

"That has been just a lovely experience," Eaton said.

On Wednesday, a visitor from Colorado wrote "love our public lands" in the comment section of the log at Canyons of the Ancients' Sand Canyon Trail.

A sign marks the entrance to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Cortez,Colo.

Many of the visitors Thursday expressed similar sentiments. Sheri Michaels, a Georgia resident who grew up in Iowa, said she and her husband often visit the national parks and monuments while traveling.

"The national parks have always been a part of our lives," she said.

About two years ago, Michaels began protesting development of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would impact her family's farm in Iowa.

"I suppose the next (fight's) going to have to be the national parks," she said.

Many of the visitors on Thursday were upset about Trump's executive order.

"I'm not happy about it," said Janine Schoellhorn. "I think that we're taking a huge step backwards for economic reasons that are highly questionable."

The Alaska resident visited Canyons of the Ancients while touring the southwest.

"I feel like if there's anything as Americans that sets us apart from most of the world, it's our public lands and the actions we've taken to put lands into protected status," she said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.