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Bears Ears National Monument was created in 2016 by President Obama to preserve the accumulated cultural record of thousands of years of habitation by people descended from the original North Americans. The artifacts, structures, and rock art from these ancient cultures remained undisturbed in their original, natural setting and in their unreconstructed state, for more than 800 years. Since the late 1800s however, grave robbers, pot hunters, and visitors have degraded or destroyed numerous sites and removed many tens of thousands of artifacts from what might be considered as one of the world's greatest outdoor museums of ancient cultures. The recent internet availability of GPS coordinates to sensitive sites has only hastened the degradation.
The creation of the Monument offered some hope that what remained might be preserved for future generations. Although the original Monument boundaries did not include all sensitive archaeological sites, they closely followed the boundaries recommended by Utah's Public Lands Initiative and the Inter-Tribal Coalition of Native Americans and encompassed 1.35 million acres.
A mere eleven months after its creation, President Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85%. Important areas, formerly protected within Monument boundaries, were now outside. Of special concern, Cedar Mesa—which has the monument's highest density of important cultural sites—is outside the new monument boundaries and no longer has the additional protection that comes with National Monument status.
The public uproar generated by shrinking the monument’s boundaries drew attention to the area, leading to burgeoning visitation just as protection was lost—the worst possible scenario. Lawsuits, seeking to overturn Trump’s decision, were filed by public land advocates and the Inter-tribal council. As the fate of Bears Ears National Monument was argued in the courts, cultural treasures were being lost or degraded at an increasing rate.
Four years later, in 2021, President Biden restored the original boundaries of Bears Ears, but left the aforementioned legal issues unresolved. Here is the proclamation in its entirety.
For more information about the Monument, and how you might help restore the original boundaries, go to https://www.friendsofcedarmesa.org
Cedar Mesa is a shield-shaped high desert plateau in southeastern Utah. Extending from Elk Ridge on the north to the vicinity of San Juan River on the south, it is bordered roughly by Comb Ridge on the east and Grand Gulch on the west. Nearly 400 square miles (260,000 acres) in size, it represents only 20% of the original monument.
The monument gets its name from twin box-shaped sandstone buttes on the northern end of Cedar Mesa. The plateau is highest on a north-south line down its center. Rainfall draining east and west quickly forms deep canyons on the plateau’s periphery.
Ancient people lived on Cedar Mesa because it was possible to supplement hunting and gathering with farming (primarily corn) most years. Far more people lived in surface sites than in the canyons, but those sites dissolved more quickly than the defensive sites built in protective alcoves and under overhangs (“cliff dwellings”).
Grand Gulch can be thought of as the western boundary of Cedar Mesa. It is a deep canyon that begins near the Bears Ears and runs approximately 50 miles to the San Juan River. The canyon doesn’t have many significant geologic obstacles, but thick vegetation can impede progress and the entire length of the canyon is prone to flash floods.
It is a long and difficult hike out of the canyon to any assistance, so avoiding injury and illness is paramount. Numerous structures and rock art sites are to be found in the main canyon and its many tributaries. They are especially vulnerable precisely because they are so far from any regular monitoring.
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