Let me take you on a trip to San Juan County in southeastern Utah in the region proposed for the Bears Ears National Monument. You can stop your car almost anywhere, walk into the canyons, step over sagebrush, and duck under juniper tree branches. You can breathe in the antiquity.
I like this description. It’s adapted from a travel column published in the Salt Lake Tribune nearly 70 years ago (May 16, 1948). The reporter, C.R. Sundwall, beckoned the reader to this part of southern Utah, which he found aloof to time, untrammeled, and storied by indigenous people. This was a region of distinct beauty, serenity and honor.
But wait. The next sentences in Sundwall’s article are every bit as descriptive, but not for the good of the people or the land and, maybe, defensible in retrospect of the time.
Sundwall invited readers to “knock on the door to the nearest log home.” There, he writes, “you can witness the ancient culture of the Indians personified in personal belongings scrounged from the lands.” These “unbroken vases, pots other objects made by the Indians” have been “exhumed from ancient homes or from the burying ground of the Indians who roamed the land at the time of the cliff dweller, about 1200 AD.”
Articles about San Juan County, published over the next decade, segue from the valuable items stolen from on the land — or close to its surface — to gouging the land for what lies below. The business page of the Ogden Standard-Examiner (June 26, 1953) reported that more than 125,000 acres of land in Southeastern Utah were leased within 10 days of a “blow-out” in a gas well drilled in the Bears Ears area of San Juan County. Four years later, Sinclair Oil & Gas Co. drilled a 4,300-foot Mississippian formation wildcat in this exact same area. A portion of the land was acquired from Salt Lake oilmen.
Looting and gas, oil and mineral exploration are not confined to the past. These were not signs for the time.
You would think that sensible reasonable people know that it’s wrong to loot and rob. Yet, people continue to plunder the vases, pots and other objects from the Bears Ears region for selfish, personal gain. It’s kind of like the actions of the thief who broke into my mother’s house after my father had died and scrounged through her dresser, stealing items she had set aside in his memory. WWII medals, his favorite watch, and Catholic Rosary given to him by his own mother were connections from his life that she cherished.
You would think that oil and gas developers would be mindful of areas rich in cultural, historical and aesthetic value. OK, so I’m naive. Currently in San Juan County, there are 23 oil and gas producing operators on 524 currently producing wells on file. In 2014, oil production was at its highest since 1985 (40,911,258 BBL and 41,079,871 BBL, respectively). Oil and gas companies are pushing for new leases in the Bears Ears region, particularly on Cedar Mesa and Tank Mesa.
So, here we have a history in the Bears Ears region of San Juan County marked by looting native artifacts and increasing oil and gas exploration in fragile surroundings.
We are also at a time in history when we have a chance to learn from past misuse; we have a chance to preserve into perpetuity the canyons, surrounding sage and tree sprinkled lands and to keep the remaining artifacts where they belong and with whom they belong.
The Bears Ears National Monument proposed by a coalition of five tribes would protect 1.9 million acres of unprotected land, 100,000 archeological sites and 18 wilderness study areas and inventoried roadless areas. We have a chance to make good to a people and a land.
Well, let me take you on a trip to San Juan County in southeastern Utah. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a culturally cherished place. Let us not surrender to the “melancholy feeling” that possessed Weber County engineer J.C. Brown, when in 1923, he stood and viewed caves in the ledges along a canyon, realizing that this spectacular land and these remnants of ancient people could be doomed by the failure to protect them. We can’t let that happen. National monument status is clearly the direction to travel.
Chris Fraizer is the managing editor of a magazine published locally for an international audience of public safety dispatchers and calltakers.