Over the past few months I have been fortunate enough to spend my days exploring the Southwestern United States – a part of the country where most landscapes are new to me. I have fallen in love with the sandstone curves of canyon walls, the winding path of the rivers, and trees so small they appear to come from a model train set. I have begun to recognize the sage, buffaloberry and cacti that surround my feet. My preconceived ideas of what a desert is have been shattered – not in a way that leaves me broken, but instead has me thirsting for more.
On December 4th, Trump made a midday visit to the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City to sign two proclamations to dramatically shrink the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. By ten thirty in the morning, thousands of protesters had gathered outside the Capitol building with signs in hand, their voices filling the airspace in unison.
StandWithBearsEars and SaveGrandStaircase have been circulating through my social channels for the better part of a year. As an outdoorswoman, an environmentalist, and a citizen of this planet, I knew I should care about these movements, but I only began to fully understand why while spending this fall in the Southwest. There are a few things I did know about these pieces of land before coming out here: both are national monuments, they must have some sort of aesthetic value, and a lot of well known activists seem to be fighting to save them. You can tell from this short and vague list that I had a lot to learn.
I have not yet had the chance to spend time in Bears Ears. But last month while driving from Page, Arizona to Moab, Utah I passed the two iconic buttes that signify the national monument. From the passenger’s seat of my friend’s truck, I gazed in awe as I realized that this was the 1.3 million acres of land that Barack Obama declared a national monument in 2016, an action that our current president is working to undo. Fast-forward three weeks and I’m standing in a crowd of Utahns chanting, “Whose land? Our land!” as Trump lands in Salt Lake City to enact the largest rollback of federal land protection in U.S. history. With one flick of a pen, he shrank the size of Grand Staircase Escalante by fifty percent and Bears Ears by an astonishing eighty-five percent. In simplest terms, this move is nothing but Trump shaking hands with the fossil fuel industry.
Public lands have traditionally been host to outdoor recreation. If you’re an outdoors person, public land has more likely than not quenched your thirst for hiking, biking, paddling, climbing, etc. This is an industry that contributes $887 billion and 7.6 million jobs to the economy annually – significantly more than the revenue created by oil and gas companies. For a moment though, let’s forget about the economics – let’s talk about the human factor. In a better world this would be about so much more than money. Bears Ears is a sacred site for the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni tribes. Native peoples have had a connection to this land for millennia. It is home to 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites that date back at least 700 years. Today, native peoples use the land for hunting grounds and herb and medicine collection. The Navajo say that the two buttes protect their peoples. If these lands are no longer protected, much of their history and culture will be lost forever.
I have come to understand that books can only take me so far. If I truly want to understand a place, I must put my feet on its ground and breathe its air deeply. In preparation for my travels to Utah and Arizona, I spent hours reading articles and books trying to grasp any information that would help me to understand the Colorado River and the people who dammed it for human ‘benefit’. But I couldn’t truly understand the magnitude of the flooded Colorado or the beauty of nature’s restoration until I touched the river’s water and slept on its redstone banks. I now understand why the Abbeys and Powells of the world were so deeply inspired by the American Southwest and why so many others continue to find life in this landscape today. Each bend in the river brings about fresh ideas. Every new canyon feels more wild than the previous. Each butte leaves your mind racing to understand how it came to exist. I can now better understand the importance of protecting these places. I ask that if you have the chance, come visit these natural treasures. Stand on their rocks and next to their pinyon pines. Use your eyes to see their beauty, but also use your nose and your ears to feel the parts of them that cannot be seen.
There are endless stories to be told, paintings to be made, photographs to be taken, and poems to be written about these places. These mediums act as records for the landscape - offering those who have not yet had the chance to visit the national monuments themselves a glimpse at the beauty that they have to offer. The fight is not over. Being here simultaneously emboldens me to continue to find my true self, to do everything in my abilities to preserve natural places, and to step back for moments at a time to allow these landscapes to speak for themselves. This is a place that is so new to me, and I feel as though I could spend a lifetime getting to know it. Who knows, maybe I will.
If you are asking yourself how you can help at this moment please consider donating to two key efforts that are taking place right now. Friends of Cedar Mesa is currently raising money to create the Bears Ears Visit with Respect Education Center with a goal of raising $840,000 in the next six months. Access Fund is suing Trump to defend Bears Ears but they need your support to do so. Education and legal action are so powerful. Please visit the links below to donate and to learn more about what these two organizations are doing: