Utahns take sides in the struggle for Bears Ears National Monument

By: Susan Lacke and Glen Warchol

Surrounded by the new Bears Ears National Monument and in the shadow of Sundial Face, a sheer cliff beloved by rock climbers, is Dugout Ranch. Heidi Redd has lived here for half a century, running the Indian Creek Cattle Company—a woman in a traditionally male job—for 30 years before retiring in 2015. Her relationship with this wild landscape has endured government policies, environmental awakening and the Sagebrush Rebellion. Unlike most of her neighbors in Utah’s Four Corners region, Redd has reached an understanding with the land she loves.

“You live out here so long without seeing anyone—you get the notion the land belongs to you,” says the tiny, lean Redd, who wears faded denim and her trademark “Gus” cowboy hat over her braided gray hair. When rock climbers first appeared on the rock faces, she felt a flash of anger that they hadn’t asked permission, even though her ranch runs cattle on 275,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management property.

“Then one day, it dawns on you—this is public land, it belongs to everybody. They have as much right as I have to be out here,” Redd recalls. “But that attitude, that the land is yours, is something it takes time to step over.”

Redd says her neighbors, many of whom trace their lineage back to Mormon pioneers, need to accept the national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, if they want their families and descendants to thrive on the borders of the wild country. “Fighting the monument is just wasting time,” she says of the relentless campaign against Bears Ears. “I feel strongly it’s time to get behind Bears Ears and make it work.”

Photo by: Josh Ewing

The New Range War

So far, most of Redd’s neighbors are far from embracing any form of federally controlled public land, let alone the Bears Ears National Monument established by Barrack Obama in the waning days of his presidency. The Utah Legislature passed two resolutions this year calling for President Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s executive order, and a third resolution, unsuccessfully sponsored by Sagebrush Rebel Rep. Mike Noel, for the monument to be converted into a state park. The Republican-controlled Legislature is also girding for a multi-million-dollar lawsuit that would lay claim to almost all federal land in the state.

Joan and Bob Hosler, who own Thin Bear Indian Arts in Blanding, a town where the businesses of monument supporters are subject to boycotts, think the 1.35 million-acre monument is too big and too Big Government. “Folks won’t be able to do the things there they did before,” Joan says. “They won’t be able to hunt, graze cattle and cut wood in there.” Bob says it’s already too crowded.

An avid big-game hunter staying at a Monticello bed and breakfast, who has unsuccessfully applied 14 years running for a tag to hunt elk on Cedar Mesa, laments that hunting the famous trophy elk that haunt the new monument’s high country is now banned.

The truth is that much of what locals fear about the monument is hysterical anti-government propaganda. Bluff resident Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, says, “It’s understandable that people are confused, especially with the taxpayer-funded misinformation campaign—we have politicians who don’t get it—or don’t want to get it.”

Ewing says the key to protecting the monument is careful management and public education. “My hope is that we can keep things entirely as we do today, but treat it more respectfully.”

But better management in the form of additional rangers, educators and even restrooms may be sabotaged. Rep. Jason Chaffetz has vowed to fight any additional funding to public lands. “In the ’70s the area had seven BLM rangers. Now it has two,” Ewing says. “You need more people on the ground managing and educating folks.”

Jim Stiles, cartoonist and Canyon Country Zephyr editor, has long argued against the dangers of a runaway tourism economy that destroys the traditional cultures.

Roots of Anger

The primary purpose of the Bears Ears Monument designation is to protect the thousands of ancient ruins, artifacts and rock art, much of it undiscovered, tucked into the canyons—Hopi, Navajo, Zuni and Ute tribes will advise the BLM in managing the new monument. But part of the hatred locals hold for the federal government is rooted in a June 2009 FBI raid. SWAT teams rounded up 22 locals, including leading citizens, charging them with robbing and selling pottery and woven baskets from native ruins—the biggest bust in the long history of looting ancient American Indian burial sites.

The raid quickly turned into a public-relations catastrophe for the feds that ended in the suicides of two collectors—a beloved local physician, and the FBI informer. The artifact robbers, seen locally as victims of government thugs, all reached plea agreements. Now, federal employees in the area are shunned and BLM property is sometimes vandalized.

Often forgotten in the ongoing political dispute are the Ute and Navajo. In their mythologies the land and its antiquities are sacred. Former San Juan County Commissioner and Utah Navajo Mark Maryboy has little common ground with the Sagebrush Rebels like San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and state Rep. Mike Noel, who led protest ATV rides into restricted BLM canyons. Maryboy told High Country News “I wonder how [Lyman] would feel if I went to the Blanding Cemetery and led a posse over their graves?”

Photo by: Tim Peterson

A Threatened Rural Culture

Although at the national level the public lands debate may be seen as between the “drill, baby, drill” faction and environmentalists, a third group of locals has deep and nuanced misgivings about the monument. They fear it—and the deeply-rooted farming, ranching and mining culture around it—will be destroyed by too much love and capitalism. In short, they fear the towns—Bluff, in particular—will go the way of nearby Moab, where so-called Big Recreation and tourism have taken over and growth amounts to jobs at fast-food restaurants and as seasonal guides.

Jim Stiles, long-time editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr, eloquently makes the arguments of the leave-it-as-it-is faction. Stiles is particularly annoyed by would-be do-gooders who call on the rural communities to embrace the opportunities of ecotourism—including “jobs as swing-shift line cooks”—or get what they deserve.

“In other words,” Stiles writes, “it’s time for the rural West to go.  In the view of many, it’s simply time for the ‘Old West’ and even the ‘Original West’—Native Americans that came first—in fact, anyone who clings to traditional lifestyles and customs and occupations—to step aside for an amenities/recreation/tourism-driven New West economy. Resistance, they believe, is futile.”

But Ewing sees a solution in careful protection and education. “It depends on what you define as Big Recreation. If it’s anybody but Jim Stiles going for a hike—there’s a 100 percent chance of Big Recreation developing the area. You can’t see a beautiful shot of someone recreating in Bears Ears and not want to do it yourself. If you don’t have management for that, then damage can be done.”

Call for Change

Heidi Redd’s savvy and creativity in holding onto her ranch could be an inspiration to the broader community. In 1997, she and her ex-husband sold the ranch to the Nature Conservancy, shunning more lucrative offers. “I had offers from people who wanted to make the ranch into a golf course,” she says. “I didn’t want to see this beautiful canyon developed as a gated community.”

In exchange, the Nature Conservancy will allow Redd to live on the ranch until her death. Since she retired, the Conservancy has taken over the cattle operation with her son as manager. The ranch has also become a research lab for scientists studying climate change—something most of her neighbors deny—and its effects on the habitat, including cattle ranching. “We have a great exchange with the scientists,” Redd says. “They teach us what they learned and I give them a historic perspective on the climate and the land.”

Redd has tired of the monument opponents’ rhetoric. “You can’t live keeping things they way they were 50 years ago,” she says. “Things will continuously change. You have to embrace it.”

Redd has even less faith in Utah’s politically conservative leaders. “They say they have no intention of selling the public lands if they got them,” she says. “But if the economy changes, they’ll sell them. I feel much more comfortable with federal control of the land. I’m scared to death of what this state would do with these public lands if they got them.”

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