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Bluff • Even some Native Americans don't know about the archaeological riches their ancestors left in Cedar Mesa.
A week ago, on a tour of the area, a member of the Hopi Tribe was shocked to find his family's Flute Clan symbol in a rock pictograph.
"It was a very powerful, very emotional tour," said Mark Maryboy, a Navajo elder. "A lot of them didn't realize how much history and how much evidence their people left behind. There are many generations."
In a campaign to reclaim the place from Anglo grave robbers, off-roaders and benignly ignorant campers and hikers who have traversed the region since state and federal leaders carved it up to distinguish public from private land, Utah's Navajos are leading a push to create the Bears Ears National Conservation Area in the southeastern corner of Utah.
Their proposal stretches from the southern edge of Canyonlands National Park to the San Juan River and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in the south to approximately U.S. Highway 191 on the east and the Colorado River on the west.
The tribe's 1.9 million-acre proposal is larger than three other plans to expand federal land protections in the region including the Greater Canyonlands notion from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, four conservation areas pitched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and another from Friends of Cedar Mesa.
But for native people whose ancestors occupied the canyons and mountaintops of Cedar Mesa for hundreds of years, the conservation plan is personal.
Last week, the Navajo invited members of the Cochiti Pueblo, Hopi, Hualapai, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni Pueblo tribes on the tour to show them why it needs a federal designation. On that field tour, Maryboy welcomed them home. Then he asked for their help.
"I told them the local peoples the Navajos and Utes have been doing the best we can to protect the sacred sites left behind by their people, but that it is becoming very difficult," said Maryboy, a former San Juan County commissioner. "Rooms are desecrated. Pot hunters have come and taken most of the pottery, and ruins are being destroyed every day.
"This is their homeland," he added, "and they need to help us find a way to protect it."
The Bears Ears proposal comes amid Rep. Rob Bishop's regional land-use planning initiative and a growing sense that if Utah doesn't do something to protect threatened public lands such as Cedar Mesa, President Barack Obama could be persuaded to declare another national monument in the state before he leaves office.
"We want to re-protect the land that we love," Maryboy said. "Our elders were forcibly removed from those lands and never had a chance to articulate how they felt. Our people were not at the table when the U.S. government created public and private lands."
But it hasn't been easy going.
Just picking a name for the idea revealed sensitivities among the tribes. Originally, the proposal was named Diné Bikéyah, a Navajo phrase that means "sacred lands of the people." But that was a potential obstacle to other tribes joining the project.
In the end, Diné Bikéyah was dropped from the name and the team adopted a geologic formation: A pair of buttes in the Manti-La Sal National Forest south of the Dark Canyon Wilderness called Bears Ears. The formation, significant to several tribes, can be seen for miles. And celebrated Navajo "Headman" Manuelito, known for resisting the federal government's efforts to forcibly remove the tribe from the region, was born in 1818 in a Diné village at Bears Ears.
Drawing support from other tribes strengthens the cause, said Diné Bikéyah Chairman Willie Grayeyes.
"We appreciate our tribal brothers and sisters from New Mexico and Arizona joining us in Utah to discuss the conservation of this area's sacred sites," Grayeyes said. "The Navajo Nation and other tribes throughout the region have worked for years to secure protection for the Bears Ears, and we are excited to broaden the conversation to include other tribes that have their own cultural relationship to this landscape."
Besides preserving archaeological sites, the tribes want to protect traditional uses of the land, including gathering plants not available on reservation lands for ceremonial and medicinal uses, gathering firewood and cedar poles and visiting sacred places.
History set in stone • Two other groups want to protect the 700,000-acre mesa west of Monticello, Blanding and Bluff. Their proposals aren't necessarily in competition with Bears Ears, but they propose different boundaries for federal politicians and land managers to consider.
"Anywhere else in the world this region would be nationally protected, even without the archaeology," said Josh Ewing, a Bluff resident who leads Friends of Cedar Mesa. "There is no place so rich in archaeology in such a beautiful natural environment."
Ewing's grass-roots group and the National Trust hope Congress and San Juan County leaders will agree to set aside the scenic lands.
The Cedar Mesa plateau is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and much of it is managed as a special recreation area and wilderness study areas including the national forest and wilderness area, Grand Gulch and the Valley of the Gods.
The ancestors of today's Puebloan tribes occupied the canyons and mesa tops until about A.D. 1200.
"It is one of the most dense archaeology places in Utah," said BLM Preservation Officer Nate Thomas, whose agency is neutral in the conservation debate but is charged with protecting the land's cultural resources. "There are thousands and thousands of archaeological sites in that area, and they are very important to the tribes and to the American people. Cultural resources are fragile by their very nature. They are nonrenewable."
Hundreds of native rock structures remain preserved under ledges, along with countless petroglyphs and pictographs on sandstone walls. Many more cultural resources, including middens, graves, "lithic scatters" and wall alignments remain invisible beneath the soil.
Looters long have targeted burial sites for the sacred objects and other artifacts they hold, but the BLM suspects the problem has gotten worse at Cedar Mesa.
Ewing says the agency is investigating 11 incidents of grave robbing discovered during the past year by volunteer site stewards.
But a more serious threat comes from uneducated visitors.
"We had 106,000 visitor days last year, and a lot don't know much about archaeology," Ewing said. "They are crawling over walls, putting potsherds in their pockets and taking them home. Their kids are scratching on the walls. I see that as the more persistent problem to the visible archaeology."
Last year, 120 archaeologists wrote a letter to Obama and Utah's congressional delegation, urging preservation status for Cedar Mesa.
"This region would be a treasure worth preserving for future generations, if only for its scenery, wild canyons, immense vistas and colorful red rock," the letter stated. "However, the value of this place goes far beyond its natural beauty. Evidence of 12,000 years of human occupation in the greater Cedar Mesa area gives us all an irreplaceable connection with ancient American history.
"There's perhaps no better place to experience well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan habitation sites in a backcountry setting."
SITLA's say • Within the proposed conservation areas are dozens of checkerboard state trust lands sections, totaling 64,800 acres in the Cedar Mesa area and 153,546 acres in the larger Bears Ears proposal.
Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) leaders are watching the process and say they eventually will become involved.
"Once there is a better understanding of what the boundaries of any new conservation areas are, we will develop a land-exchange proposal to convey any SITLA lands inside the new conservation areas to the BLM, and identify BLM lands for acquisition elsewhere in the county," explained John Andrews, associate director and chief legal counsel for SITLA.
At the same time, the land is in play as part of Bishop's eastern Utah public lands initiative, aimed at settling long-standing fights over what lands should be open to extractive industries and which should be protected and preserved for their natural and cultural values.
If Bears Ears were to become a monument or conservation area, it would likely be incorporated into BLM's National Landscape Conservation System and be managed to protect the area's natural and cultural values. Existing uses, including grazing, motorized use and valid oil and gas leases, would remain, although they would be more closely regulated. There would be no future mineral leasing.
If Bishop's process fails, the tribes and conservation groups plan to petition the Obama administration to invoke the Antiquities Act to designate a national monument. Though a new monument would likely preserve existing uses, such a campaign would raise the ire of state and local officials.
On Monday, the various groups involved will continue negotiations with San Juan County officials about the extent of conservation designations in the county's formal Bishop process proposal.
San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a Navajo, says she will support a national conservation area designation if the people of her county want it. For two months, Benally has been explaining the difference between a national conservation area, wilderness and monument designation.
"An informed decision is best for all residents of San Juan County," Benally said. "I hope we've reached a consensus, because, as a Diné person, we are taught not to argue or claim to own Mother Earth. We are only her keeper in respect, harmony and to take care of her to the best of our abilities."
County leaders have insisted any deal include exempting San Juan from a future Antiquities Act designation.
That's a tough pill for conservationists to swallow, particularly in a county so well-endowed with vulnerable treasures.
The Antiquities Act has been used only twice in San Juan County to create small monuments in 1908 for Natural Bridges and in 1923 for Hovenweep.
Ewing argues Cedar Mesa is exactly the kind of imperiled landscape Congress sought to protect when it passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, empowering the president to designate monuments.
He believes Obama may feel compelled to use the Antiquities Act in San Juan County before he leaves office in early 2017.
"We would have no one to blame other than ourselves," Ewing said, "if we can't figure out how to protect an area as special as Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa."