By Published: Sept. 26, 2017

I have been to the area in Utah now designated as the Bears Ears National Monument many times, and each time I was thrilled with the physical environment, for the canyons are deep and intricately sculpted by wind and water while delicate spires, immense buttes and long, high ridges create a unique, romantic landscape. 

And each time I came away with a deep appreciation of the history preserved in the remnants of dwellings, fortresses, pictographs, petroglyphs and pottery. 

I vividly remember hiking from the eastern edge of Comb Ridge into a deep canyon that ended in a tall cliff with a deep alcove known today as Monarch Cave. 


Bears ears

Dwellings at Monarch Cave were abandoned abruptly 750 years ago. Click here or on photo to see larger image. Photo by Jeff Mitton.

From a distance, the remnants of a dwelling appear as tall stone walls, some flat, others rounded, with small windows. But residents left many things — they dipped their hands in dye and pressed them on the wall, leaving signatures still distinct. 

Women ground corn and acorns on bedrock surfaces, gouging and polishing them into matates that are still littered with corncobs. Petroglyphs decorate the walls. 

The alcove, high on a cliff, is a natural fortress with narrow approaches from either side, easily defended. After a thunderstorm, water would spill from above, tumbling into the splash pool far below, a natural reservoir.

The remnants of the dwelling or fortress are in good condition, but very quiet now. Residents of this site and all nearby sites headed south between 1250 and 1280, escaping unsustainable conditions precipitated by a 25-year drought. 

A few miles away, I followed cairns across miles of slickrock to see the Procession Panel. This petroglyph, created between 1,250 and 1,500 years ago, depicts a hunting scene of 179 hunters organized in lines to drive game, presumably toward a precipice. The game animals include mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and a wolf, and the hunting weapon is the ancient atlatl, a device used to hurl a spear. 

From the Procession Panel I followed the lines of Comb Ridge to the west, to the top of the ridge. From that point I had an unobstructed view of the entirety of Comb Ridge, approximately 80 miles long. 

The northern edge points to the Abajo Mountains, while to the south it curves to the west to point toward Monument Valley. At the end of the day, as the sun set into Cedar Mesa, it turned the sky to pastels and the precipitous western wall of Comb Ridge a deep red. I don't think I have seen a more luminous sunset.

A year ago I went on a journey to visit a single piece of pottery, intact and unmoved for 750 years. Five of us hiked and climbed where there were no paths to be rewarded with a moving experience. 

The pot has the busy, intricate patterning that allows clay pots to be used for cooking over an open fire. With repeated use, cooking pots always crack, as this one did. If they were still intact, they were buried to the rim in soft soil and covered with a pottery lid to serve as a short-term granary to keep corn, beans and squash away from rodents. Each of us took a few moments, alone with the pot, trying to imagine the people and activities at that place so long ago.

A column does not allow me to tell you about the pleasure and memories I have taken from the area now protected as the Bears Ears National Monument. But I can tell you that I am profoundly troubled by the effort led by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and President Donald Trump to reduce the size of the Monument by 90 percent. 

Zinke and Trump have spoken plainly about their incentives. They wish to reduce the monument by 90 percent so that the land can be made available for mining, for drilling for gas and oil, and logging. Their interests are in extraction, money and profits.

A year ago the state of Utah sold off 800 acres of public land, including 380 acres on Comb Ridge. Many of us believed that the public land was protected. One month after the sale, the Bears Ears National Monument was created. Without the protection provided by a national monument, the land would be mined, drilled and sold.

Our national parks and monuments have been created to preserve remarkable scenery, unusual landscapes and historical sites for all American citizens. They do not belong to the citizens who live adjacent to them, nor are they at the disposal of the state in which they reside, or the whims of current government officials. 

Our parks and monuments have been established in perpetuity not only for us, but more importantly, for the generations of Americans to come.