Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
More than 50 years ago, when signing the groundbreaking Wilderness Act, President Lyndon Johnson said: “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
There is perhaps no unprotected landscape in the Lower 48 that better represents what Johnson meant than the culturally rich, breathtaking and inspiring Bears Ears region of southern Utah.
Its nearly 1.9 million acres of public lands—partly managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service—are relatively untouched by the extractive industry, much as they were thousands of years ago. This is an environment that challenges the imagination, nourishes the soul, reawakens our spirituality and sustains many cultures.
Bears Ears is an unparalleled asset that draws visitors from around the globe, and it must be cared for and sustained. The area contains some of our finest canyon country climbing, hiking, backpacking, canyoneering and river running.
In the past few years, Utah has enjoyed some of the country’s highest population and economic growth. People come to Utah to experience its history and to delight in the outdoor opportunities in such pristine areas.
Our national parks are seeing unprecedented growth and crowding, and we need more than ever to protect the last pristine landscapes for society.
Bears Ears contains more than 100,000 cultural sites, and is considered sacred by dozens of tribes who trace their ancestry to these lands. In spite of that, serious cases of grave-robbing and artifact theft are reported on a regular basis. The area’s cultural history is being pillaged—from burning ancient Navajo homes for firewood to tossing aside human remains and artifacts as burial sites are plundered.
The first efforts to protect this landscape began in the early 1930s, when Harold Ickes, then-secretary of the interior, proposed a large Escalante National Monument, which would have included much of what is Bears Ears today. At the same time, Bob Marshall, then-director of forestry for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, made a recommendation to manage large tracts of southwestern Utah as “wilderness,” “primitive” or “road-less” areas. However, the proposals faded away as most Americans became more preoccupied with the threat of WWII.
We either move now to save this country’s iconic cultural and natural landscape, or it may be permanently taken from future generations.
Irresponsible off-road vehicle use affects both the natural scenery and archaeological and cultural sites. The threat of massive, multi-faceted energy development is imminent. In the recent Utah legislative session, energy development was declared the “highest and best use” of Cedar Mesa, the center of Bears Ears.
The region enjoys broad support for protection, from local Navajo chapter houses, to 25 Native American tribal governments throughout the Southwest, to a majority of Utah residents (based on two recent independent polls). But Utah’s leaders oppose making the area a national park or monument.
For the outdoor industry, protecting and stewarding our country’s remaining wild, iconic landscapes is integral to our industry’s vibrant economic future. Unfortunately, Utah’s political leadership continues to look backwards with a near-singular focus on extractive industries. They fail to understand that the state’s protected landscapes are why the outdoor industry and tourism have boomed in Utah, becoming one of the state’s top economic sectors.
It is disheartening to see Utah’s elected leaders’ failure to show respect to the tribal nations and the Native American communities in the state and adjacent regions who are calling for the protection of Bears Ears. With a non-functional Congress and Utah’s leaders’ failure to take the tribes’ proposal seriously—and their refusal to listen to the support for protection by America’s outdoor industry—it’s time for the president to step in and use his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare a national monument protecting Bears Ears.
This needs to happen quickly. Native Americans have led this initiative, and the outdoor industry and all Americans should stand behind them in asking Congress and the president to support preserving a landscape essential to our collective heritage and vibrant future.
Just as we would protect the Mona Lisa, Sistine Chapel, Grand Canyon and Grand Tetons, we should protect the treasure that is Bears Ears. It is a region of unimaginable richness that connects us with our history, our humanity and the natural world. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.
Your voice does matter. Write the president, Utah governor and Utah’s congressional delegation. Tell them you support protecting Bears Ears. Post your support on Facebook, Instagram and other social media. Encourage friends to publicly share their support, too.
Find phone numbers, email forms and addresses on these official websites:
Rep. Jason Chaffetz:chaffetz.house.gov/contact
Rep. Rob Bishop:robbishop.house.gov/contact
Sen. Mike Lee:lee.senate.gov
Sen. Orrin Hatch:hatch.senate.gov
Gov. Gary Herbert:utah.gov/governor/contact
President Barack Obama: whitehouse.gov/contact
Peter Metcalf, founder & former CEO/President of Black Diamond Equipment, is a board member of the Conservation Alliance, Conservation Lands Foundation and the Outdoor Alliance. He lives in Salt Lake City.
This story appears on page 16 of the Pre-Show Edition of Outdoor Retailer Daily.