This Thanksgiving, our family tried something a little different. Instead of the traditional turkey feast, we decided to “OptOutside” in a big way and go camping in the desert. We celebrated the holiday with fire roasted hot dogs and s’mores in Bears Ears National Monument — deeply thankful for the foresight of Teddy Roosevelt and America’s cherished public lands.
If you haven’t been to red rock country in southeast Utah, put it on your bucket list. The ancient human history and rugged natural landscape are beyond imagination. Up until about 700 years ago, Grand Gulch and adjoining canyons were once one of the most densely populated places in North America.
It’s a stunning place, it’s a sacred place. We walked in deep canyons and atop sweeping mesas discovering signs of ancient human habitation.
On one excursion on Cedar Mesa, we were aiming to see the “Seven Kivas”, but followed the wrong trail and ended up on the hike to the iconic Citadel Ruin. Something like a medieval castle, the ruin is built within a pinnacle of rock overlooking two conjoining canyons. It is only accessible by a narrow ridge and was presumably used as a lookout used for defense.
There are so many ancient sites the sense of discovery is palpable. We watched the kids absorb these cultural treasures, processing what it might have been like as a child living among the cliffs. “There are no bridges, they must have been experts at climbing” my son observed.
But unfortunately, people have looted and vandalized these sites for years. Artifacts have disappeared, rock art defaced. After years of hard work by tribes, local communities, conservation organizations and others, Bears Ears National Monument was created to protect sacred indigenous sites from looting, vandalism and oil and gas exploration.
In April, President Trump sent Secretary Zinke, newly in charge of the Department of the Interior, to review 27 national monuments. A few of the national treasures on the review list included the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana and two Utah monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante. A few monuments, including the Breaks, were spared from elimination or reduction. However the Utah monuments were always at the greatest risk.
When Secretary Zinke visited Bears Ears, I still held out hope. He grew up in Montana, where public lands are our currency. Zinke self-identifies as a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. I thought he’d defend America’s backyard.
But Secretary Zinke betrayed his Montana roots. After a two day visit in Southern Utah, Secretary Zinke, recommend the elimination of over 2 million acres of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, a monument put in place over twenty years ago.
Not only did Zinke go back on his word, but he is the first Secretary of the Interior to recommend such a vast rollback of any national monument.
Today, the Trump Administration, with Zinke’s support, is rolling back protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, removing 85 percent of the land from the protected monument status – an unprecedented attack on our public lands. Never before has the United States eliminated permanent protections for a national monument at such a large scale.
This is not just a Utah issue, this affects us all, this is an issue of our national identity.
On the last night of our visit, we climbed atop the rock at Salvation Point and took in the enormity of this dramatic landscape weathered by water and time. It is sacred, and deserves the utmost protection. Stand with the overwhelming majority of Americans in opposing these attacks on our history, favorite outdoor pastimes and cultural treasures. #StandWithBearsEars.