Inside the new battle for the American West

The push to cut back federally protected lands is fueling a dispute rooted in our history and culture. The big question: Whose land is it?

Source: Inside the new battle for the American West

Deep in a box canyon in Utah, in the heart of the fractured land known as Bears Ears National Monument, there is a cave—a swooping, mineral-streaked alcove in a sandstone cliff.

In December 1893 a rancher-explorer named Richard Wetherill pushed his way through dense reeds and discovered inside that alcove a stacked-stone ruin where a prehistoric group of Native Americans once lived. He named the site Cave Seven. Some would later condemn him as a vandal and a looter—but Cave Seven proved to be one of the most important finds in the archaeology of the American Southwest.

It’s easier to get there today than it was in Wetherill’s era, but it’s not easy. You bump along a dirt road that twists long miles through arroyos and canyons, past jagged crags and sandstone domes. Then you are on foot. You clamber through a dry watercourse clogged with bitterbrush and poison ivy; you sidle along a rock ledge. Look up: A dissolving jet contrail is the only sign of the time in which we live. Look down: What seem like stones at your feet are in fact remnants of cooking vessels. Such relics are everywhere, if you know how to look: A saltbush-covered mound conceals a ceremonial kiva; a subtle line in the earth marks a road connecting ancient villages. All around is evidence of things made, laid, and lived in centuries ago.

Wetherill excavated the surface ruin at Cave Seven, selling the artifacts to museums and collectors, leaving only a bit of masonry wall and smoke smudges. Then he kept digging. He had recently learned the novel concept of archaeological stratigraphy: the idea that prehistory is recorded in successive layers of sediment. Earlier remains lie beneath later ones—ruins under ruins, cultures under cultures. At Cave Seven, Wetherill found below the visible ruins a burial site that predated them by hundreds of years. He dug up 98 skeletons from a previously unknown Basketmaker society. Deep in this forgotten canyon, deep in time, one culture had given way to another.

Last December, President Donald Trump reduced the 1.35-million-acre monument by 85 percent and divided it into two smaller units, Indian Creek and Shash Jáa. He cut nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 46 percent. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also recommended shrinking other monuments, including Cascade Siskiyou in Oregon. He declined to be interviewed.

When Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, authorizing the creation of such monuments, it was partly in reaction to the theft of Native American artifacts by people like Wetherill. The law gives presidents broad discretion to protect “historic landmarks … and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on federal land. Designating a monument requires no input from Congress. “A president could literally scratch something out on a bar napkin,” says University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson. There is no language in the law, however, granting subsequent presidents the power to amend monuments created by their predecessors. In the days after Trump slashed the two Utah monuments, five lawsuits challenged the legality of the move. Those suits are pending too.

Republican presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the Antiquities Act into law, have designated large monuments, but the number and acreage have grown dramatically in recent years, particularly under Democratic administrations. Like so much else, the struggle over western lands has become politically partisan. Trump’s reductions were part of a larger campaign to reverse Obama’s public land policies—by opening protected lands and waters to mining and drilling, by easing regulations, and by rolling back habitat protections for struggling species. (See related sage grouse story.)

The reactions have fallen along predictable lines. Drillers and miners, loggers and ranchers, face off against hikers and bikers, climbers and conservationists. It’s the Old West versus the New; the people whose livelihoods depend on extracting resources from the land versus those who visit and the businesses that serve them—and at Bears Ears, the Native Americans who were there first. Both sides cry “Land grab!” Both sides feel they have the one true answer to the question: What is the best and highest use of the land that, in principle, belongs to us all?

Western lands have been a subject of intense dispute ever since the U.S. government seized them from native tribes. As the nation’s rough edge expanded toward the Pacific in the 19th century, the transfer of “free land” to homesteaders, railroads, livestock barons, and mining syndicates was seen as part of building a nation. By the 1870s, however, that sense of the common good began to shift. In the upper Midwest, loggers had reduced magnificent forests to swampy fields of stumps. “People began using the phrase ‘timber famine,’” says historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, and to worry that such rapid depletion of resources posed a long-term risk to the nation.

Out of that newfound sense of limits was born the notion of public land, managed in perpetuity by the federal government for the good of the nation. In 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill creating Yellowstone National Park—the world’s first. Congress empowered presidents to create forest reserves in 1891, and millions of acres of timberland are now managed by the U.S. Forest Service. In the 20th century the General Land Office, which later became the Bureau of Land Management, slowly shifted its focus from selling “leftover” grasslands and desert to managing grazing and mineral extraction on those lands. Then as now, critics responded with outrage. “As nefarious a scheme as ever disgraced the nation,” wrote foes of the forest reserves. “A fiendish and diabolical scheme,” argued opponents of protecting the Grand Canyon.

That dynamic hasn’t changed. The federal government still owns 575 million acres across the West—nearly half the total land of the 11 western states in the lower 48, including 63 percent of Utah and 80 percent of Nevada. Each action to protect or manage those lands has met with angry reaction. From the 1934 law that required leases for grazing, to the environmental laws of the 1960s and ’70s, to protections for endangered species, Westerners have responded with legal action and sometimes violent resistance. They’ve planted bombs and summoned horse-riding, flag-waving, gun-toting protesters.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons typify that rebellious spirit. In 2014 the Bundys and their supporters held off federal agents seeking to impound cattle that the family had grazed on federal land for more than 20 years without paying fees. In 2016 Bundy’s sons traveled from Nevada to Oregon to occupy the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge after two Oregon ranchers who had clashed with refuge managers were imprisoned for arson. Trump recently pardoned the convicted ranchers.

By now it’s a familiar story. The government changes the rules or resolves finally to enforce them; tensions build and explode across the jigsaw ridges of the American West. “It’s not unlike when they adapt Shakespeare for modern settings,” Limerick says. “The script is the same, but Lear is wearing a business suit.”

On a blazing afternoon in July 2017, a fashionably rugged mob descended on the Utah statehouse in Salt Lake City. They had begun a mile away at the convention center, where the Outdoor Industry Association was holding its summer show of recreation gear—backpacks, tents, portable espresso makers—for the last time in Salt Lake. Frustrated by Utah legislators’ unrelenting opposition to the Bears Ears monument, the trade group had decided to move its lucrative gatherings to Colorado.

Wearing river sandals, eco-sloganed trucker hats, crocheted bear ears, and bald eagle costumes, the group marched past the Mormon archives and temple, singing and chanting (“Get Your Tiny Hands Off Our Public Lands!”) and waving signs (“Speak Loud for Quiet Places”). Among the speakers who addressed the crowd was Northern Ute councilman Shaun Chapoose—on this issue the West’s oldest inhabitants had allied with its newest. “Our lands were taken,” Chapoose said. “Now yours are too.”

The Bears Ears monument, named for twin buttes that jut above Cedar Mesa, owes its origin to an unprecedented coalition of local tribes. The original monument was estimated to include more than 100,000 ancient sites—cliff dwellings, kivas, great houses, and burial sites like Cave Seven. All were built by peoples who lived in the region for millennia but then departed at the end of the 13th century, driven out by drought and conflict.

Today their Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo descendants still consider the region their ancestral home, as do the Navajo, Ute, Paiute, and Apache who moved into southern Utah and Colorado after the early Pueblo left. For years native leaders negotiated with local, state, and federal officials, seeking a legislative compromise on how the land should be managed. As the effort foundered in Congress, tribal and conservation groups pushed Obama to designate a monument before he left office.

The urgency wasn’t merely political. The area’s arid climate and profound isolation had long helped protect its archaeological treasures—the rock art, potsherds, and tools, the human remains, the thumb-size corncobs. But our era of geotagged photos has made it easy to locate obscure sites. In the decade before the monument was created, visits to the area surged.

With rising and unregulated visitation has come more damage: tourists pocketing potsherds, campfires burning wood from century-old Native American shelters, graffiti on rock art, off-road vehicles blasting through burial grounds. “The strategy of leaving it alone and trying to keep it a secret is unsustainable,” says Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a conservation group.

Nor are heedless vacationers the only threat. Wetherill’s discoveries launched a tradition of organized pothunting by white settlers. “The trashing started in the 1890s,” says Wilkinson, an adviser to the tribes who petitioned for the monument. “Pots were selling in London, Berlin. And skeletons—skeletons! It was carnage.”

Although the Antiquities Act outlawed collecting artifacts without a special permit on public land, even if it isn’t a monument, the desecration continued. In 1986 federal agents seized hundreds of illegal artifacts in Blanding, a town of 3,700 near Bears Ears; in 2009 the feds descended again, arresting 26, including two county commissioners and a beloved local doctor, who killed himself the next day. For many in Blanding, the raid screamed federal overreach; for native communities it only proved that existing safeguards hadn’t worked. “It got people thinking about how to protect all these ruins,” says Gavin Noyes, director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a tribal nonprofit.


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