A renowned wilderness guide with decades of experience exploring the Bears Ears area, Hadenfeldt has long argued that this austere landscape teeming with archaeological and cultural treasure in southeastern Utah should be viewed as an outdoor museum. And each time he visits, more of that treasure has been looted.
“Come on, people,” he muttered in disgust, as he scanned the sandy soil this week for pieces of painted pottery from the Ancestral Puebloan Indians that used to be so easy to find in this area.
“This whole site was covered with beautiful pot shards,” he said. “I guess we’re just never going to stop people from pocketing this stuff.”
In the three years since President Donald Trump slashed the size of the Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, undoing protections established by President Barack Obama, the pressures on this area have only intensified, according to the residents and scientists who study it. The threats come in many forms — from roaring ATVs to uranium mining to coronavirus-weary tourists seeking outdoor adventure — on land that is considered sacred ground by several Native American tribes.
On her first trip as the new interior secretary, Deb Haaland arrived in this small town perched under bluffs and spires Wednesday for three days of meetings and hikes in the area. The first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history is reviewing what to do with the Bears Ears National Monument and the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that Trump also reduced in size. After her visit, Haaland is widely expected to recommend that President Biden restore the Bears Ears boundaries to at least the 1.35 million acres established by Obama near the end of his term in 2016.
Biden’s allies see Bears Ears as an early opportunity to prioritize conservation over fossil fuel extraction on public lands while responding to an issue of particular importance for Native Americans, who want to see the monument not only restored but expanded beyond the Obama boundaries.
Without protection, the remains of thousands of Native American settlements and cultural sites are in “grave jeopardy,” said Pat Gonzales-Rodgers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which is composed of five tribes with deep ties to the region.
“At the end of the day, these are the sanctuaries and the cathedrals of worship and cultural practice for these tribes,” he said.
But Bears Ears remains a divisive issue in Utah. Republican politicians do not want Biden to use an executive order to restore the monument. Instead, lawmakers say they can build a more durable solution through federal legislation that would allow for negotiations among ranchers, miners, Native Americans and conservationists to balance competing interests.
“If President Biden rolls this out, the likelihood that it will be rescinded by a future president or taken up by the Supreme Court is just extremely high,” said Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), whose district includes Bears Ears. “And that’s a terrible way to resolve these issues. Nobody wins.”
Curtis, who planned to meet with Haaland during her visit, has asked her to delay the monument decision “just long enough to see if we can reach this consensus.”
“How in the world does somebody in Washington, D.C., know where you should be able to hunt and fish, where you should be able to gather wood, where grazing is appropriate?” he added. “Let’s leave those decisions to the locals.”
Controversy draws crowds
Because Bears Ears was challenged by Trump so soon after it was created, much of the infrastructure that can be found at other protected areas — signs, buildings, management staff — does not exist here. But the crowds came anyway — fueled by social media and the national spotlight on the area.
“Visitation has just really…