Bears Ears – The enemy is us

With the reinstatement of the Bears Ears National Monument, many people seemed quite pleased and even triumphant.

The land, the beauty, and the sacred get more protection from traditional western industries such as mining or energy exploration. “Extractive industries,” as many put it.

Or do they?

Old West versus New West? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell that anything has changed at all. The extractive industries are alive and well. The glitter had a different glint, that’s all.Jim Stiles, Brave New West

A van stuck in the mud in Bears Ears. From REI.

Protecting public land without the education, resources, and staff to effectively administer it makes for an empty gesture in many ways. Though volunteers help fill the gap, the many archaeologists and people who work for the public land agencies can’t adequately keep up with the many people who come to a place once it gets advertised and becomes a bucket list item “to do.”

While an oil derrick and the infrastructure put in place to extract said oil certainly causes issues. However, do 5,000 people visiting a previously quiet site with their footprints, body oils on rock images, and the large carbon footprint used to fly into a regional hub and then travel further to such areas cause as much harm?

We as a society tend to be binary and put things into good and bad buckets. Tearing up the land and vibrations caused by fracking (damaging hundreds of years old monuments) = bad.  And that is how I feel in many, if not most cases.

But are people descending upon a fragile area, and the environmental impact they make necessarily better?

The “outdoor users” demographic will often mock the ATVers, hunters, anglers, etc., who do not share their progressive values. But is driving less than an hour away to hunt or fish, with a 10+ yr old maintained vehicle, perhaps more green-friendly than going to the airport with a late model Subaru, booking a flight, renting a car, and then repeating frequently for another #epicvacation?

I say this not to make a case that one user somehow has better or more pure values than another (I eat meat and drive a truck, after all, On the other hand, I don’t have children and have not flown for recreation in well over two years. ).  But putting people into these very binary groups does not do anyone any favors for having a nuanced and helpful discussion.

In Bears Ears specifically, with many thousands of people expected to come versus previous years, the unintentional touching of rock images, the crushing of biological crust,  people not prepared to travel in remote areas safely and adequately, off-leash dogs, solid waste left behind, etc., etc., etc. may cause as much damage, if spread out over the land and the years, as traditional extraction industries.

A favorite read of mine over the years is Wilderness Ethics – Preserving the spirit of wildness. Though written in the 1990s, the book holds up well. And perhaps even more pertinent now in the age of social media and constant communication versus when the Watermans first published the book.

As I wrote earlier:

…the book tackles the subjects that people are sometimes hesitant to talk about and that I sometimes struggle with myself.  Issues such as publicizing specific areas to save them vs loving them to death, what mode of travel is compatible with keeping places wild, bringing people into the wilderness vs limiting numbers, making a Wilderness Area safer (more signs, more trails, more amenities) at the expense of the wildness of the area, etc.

The subtitle of the book is the real point of the text: Preserving the spirit of Wildness.

It is not enough to merely have a wide-open area away from roads. But is the area truly wild? Does it really have what we seek in the backcountry?

And with the archaeological site nature of Bears Ears, perhaps the old quandary of “loving a place to death” may, unfortunately, apply even more so.

The Waterman piece on exploitation seems telling:

EXPLOITATION BY ANY OTHER NAME  Again: A Question of Values These examples we’ve cited—from blaring bright parkas to voluble parties of 25 to scientists and mapmakers mucking up the woods—what do they have in common? All represent a failure to respect the wildness in wilderness. They treat the mountain world as a personal playground. They exhibit a kind of elitist arrogance: if I’m advancing the cause of recreation or of science or of education or some other laudable objective, then I’m licensed to act as I please in the wilderness, introduce what intrusions suit my personal agenda, and let the spirit of wildness retreat until I’m through.

Despite their lofty aims, these offenders constitute the new exploiters of the backcountry. Fortunately their impact is lighter and less lasting than that of the old exploiters, the cut-and-run loggers and the strip miners. But surely, if these new exploiters claim to have the good of the backcountry at heart, they too will desire to maintain higher standards.

James North, writing in American Hiker, has expressed it well:
The idea of low-impact travel needs to be broadened and redefined. Today, it’s largely considered in terms of one’s effect on the environment: leaving no trace when you depart the mountains. But that’s no longer enough. Hikers should strive to leave no trace while they’re in the mountains as well. Low-impact should not be seen just as one’s effect on the environment, but also the effect on others who may happen to share the backcountry at any given time.

To that we would add that it is not just the experience of our fellow hikers that is at stake. There is also the integrity of the Wilderness sphere itself. Somewhere is there a Lorax who speaks for the trees? Is there a strong latent sentiment for the spirit of dness that can manifest itself in vigilant protest against intru of inappropriate behavior and associated artifacts? Is the preservation of wildness in all its attributes a legitimate and significant aim of policty and conduct?”

In many ways, it comes down to the 7th Principle of Leave No Trace – Be Considerate of Other Visitors.  And part of that consideration is realizing what impact you have on the immediate environment and the cultural aspects of the place and what that impact may have on others.

Without the resources in place for adequate stewardship, it is up to us, the community of people visiting these places, to see the site respectfully. 

Easy enough idea in theory, but often problematic in execution.

The outdoor community tends to celebrate the individual at the expense of the community – People taking on athletic endeavors during COVID restrictions get lauded, and if you question the use of recreational campfires during a historic drought, you get labeled a “Karen.”

In that vein, if we gently propose not taking large numbers to these sites in Bears Ears or being a little more cautious about giving out the location to more fragile and obscure places, we get labeled “gatekeepers.”

In short, we tend to be like Pogo’s observation – The enemy is us.

If we want to preserve and protect the area for future generations, be it Bears Ears or similar, we need to think of our actions affecting the greater community and not just ourselves.

None of us are perfect. I often lack compassion for people making honest mistakes and, even more so, being too blunt in voicing my opinions. But if we strive for better ideals and collectively  try to think of how our actions may affect others, we can instead say, “The allies are us.”

The resources to protect the places now purportedly “protected” will not be put in place anytime soon in the numbers needed. But with the help of everyone, perhaps they can get genuinely safeguarded for future generations and not just on paper.

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2 years ago


Not to mention the Native Americans who lived on these lands for around 15,000 years, then got slaughtered or ‘concentrated’ on reservations. All in the name of progress, wilderness, and national parks or monuments.

“wil-der-ness: an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region.”
Another convenient concept invented by invaders.

2 years ago

Well-considered article. Thank you for sharing. What gives me hope (and indeed, pushes me over the line in the pro-monument direction) is the example of GSENM. Both monuments are areal in nature, covering more than 1mm acres. And yet, GSENM is much the same as it was 25 years ago when it was designated. Sure, a small number of sites have served as sacrificial lambs for the madding hordes – Coyote Gulch comes to mind – but by and large, the monument designation really did freeze development (preventing the Kaiparowitz from being strip mined, for one) without killing the golden… Read more »

2 years ago

Unused public land has no real constituency, and the designation may retard the production of fossil fuels. As to the conflicting uses of public land and their relative merits, folks might find this old book of interest: