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?

National Geographic Magazine, November 2018

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.

One treasure still inside the Bears Ears monument is Procession Panel, a nearly 23-foot-long rock carving, or petroglyph, on Comb Ridge. 

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.

Bears Ears National Monument is now a battleground in another collision of cultures. Across the American West, from the desert canyons of Utah to the towering conifers of the Pacific Northwest, and in the mountains and sagebrush basins between, Americans are engaged in bitter disputes over public lands. Nowhere has the battle been fiercer than around national monuments, particularly Bears Ears, which then President Barack Obama created in December 2016.

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.

Kenneth Maryboy (in blanket), a Navajo activist, leads members of Hopi, Zuni, Ute, and other tribes in a sunrise prayer. Utah Diné Bikéyah, the nonprofit whose board Maryboy serves on

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.

During Moab Jeep Jamboree USA, held every October, traffic on the Cliffhanger Trail near Moab, Utah, can grind to a halt. The tourist crush unnerves locals on both sides of the national monuments debate, many of whom fear their own quiet rural towns will become another Moab.

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.

Mary Jane Yazzie sits on its board. A petite woman with short hair and long silver earrings, she is one of the last fluent speakers of the Ute language. The Ute Mountain Ute reservation near Blanding is cluttered with artifacts of modernity: pickup trucks, generators, satellite dishes. But the view from behind Yazzie’s house is ageless. To the west lie the Bears Ears buttes, held sacred by Ute and Navajo; to the south the land drops toward Comb Ridge, an 80-mile wall of sandstone that, in Navajo tradition, forms the Earth’s backbone.

“The land belonged to our grandfathers,” Yazzie says. “They went hunting. The women gathered herbs, nuts, berries.

“We’re tied to the land as if the land tied us to it: There’s no way we’re going to get away from it until we’re no longer on the Earth.”

“It is a diverse, iconic, some say spiritual landscape,” says rancher Matt Redd. His family sold their 5,247-acre ranch to the Nature Conservancy in 1997, and it’s now the largest private tract inside Bears Ears. Redd still runs the cattle as part of research on how to manage land in a changing climate.

The tribe’s Mormon neighbors have their own deep connection to the land and their own origin story, though it goes back only a few generations—to 1879, when some 250 Mormons spent six months blasting a road down a cliff and navigating a maze of canyons to reach a verdant plain along the San Juan River, where they built the town of Bluff. The river was prone to flooding, however. Most of the community eventually moved uphill to farm on the sagebrush plateau around Blanding, 25 miles north.

In Blanding you can see the Bears Ears from almost anywhere. Even adamant monument opponents express a deep affection for the federal land that surrounds the town. “I like public lands,” says San Juan County commissioner and state legislature candidate Phil Lyman, a descendant of Mormon pioneers. “You hike for miles and miles and miles and don’t ever stop to think, Am I trespassing?”

But he and other monument foes also believe the land can and should generate profit. “I would like to know there’s the ability to speculate on energy in that area,” Lyman says. There are lucrative oil and gas fields just outside the old monument but no producing wells inside, and the rugged, remote, and archaeologically sensitive terrain makes such efforts unaffordable—unless oil climbs back above, say, $100 a barrel. Trump’s Interior Department consulted with energy interests in drawing the monument’s new boundaries. “I suspect there’s potential,” says Lyman, who owns uranium claims.

In 2014 he led a rowdy group of protesters, including Bundy’s sons, on a ride into Recapture Canyon, which had been closed to protect ancient sites. He was jailed for that. Federal land managers “have become very much the enemy,” Lyman says. For generations, locals could cut trees and camp and drive their four-wheelers wherever they wanted. Environmental rules have restricted those freedoms, Lyman says.

Yet just as disturbing, to monument friends and foes alike, is the prospect of too much access.

“National monuments don’t necessarily bring more protection. They bring more traffic,” says Nicole Perkins, a librarian in Blanding. She cites the specter of Moab, the rollicking recreational mecca 75 miles to the north, where a four-lane neon strip hosts an unceasing parade of RVs, ATVs, and rafting rigs. No one wants that for Bears Ears. “I came here for the silence and the stars and the vistas,” says Bluff hotel owner Jim Hook. Notoriety has filled his hotel—but stolen some of that silence from everyone.

In the spring of 2016, as the Obama administration considered the petition to make Bears Ears a monument, Perkins attended a community meeting with Blanding resident Janet Wilcox. A teacher spoke, explaining that her family lived across the Colorado River in the town of Escalante. “They had lived through 20 years of a national monument,” says Wilcox. “She said, ‘You have got to wake up.’ That’s what got me involved.”

Escalante, in the secluded heart of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, is a long, sinuous drive from anywhere. Before the monument, it was a somnolent square mile of homes and farms with wide, empty streets and about 800 residents. A timber mill processed logs from the national forest above the valley. A hundred or so ranchers grazed cattle on the surrounding federal land.

Sandy Johnson fills his water truck on federal land cut from the Bears Ears monument. A fifth-generation rancher, he runs livestock on 300,000 acres of mostly public land—and worries about government regulations. “We don’t need that monument,” he says. “The land needs to be left alone so everybody can use it.”

President Bill Clinton created the monument as he campaigned for reelection in 1996. He cited its breathtaking scenery—cloud-shaped rock formations, elephant-humped ridges, whorled slot canyons plumbed by waterfalls. His administration had done the preparatory work in secret, knowing that local politicians would be furious. And fury there was: Grand Staircase-Escalante was, in many ways, the original sin that spawned the current backlash against the Antiquities Act. It covered nearly 3,000 square miles.

In the 22 years since, Escalante has served as both inspiration and cautionary tale for other communities. Tourism attracted by the monument supports new hotels, restaurants, and guide services. The town has a new hardware store, a dentist, and a health clinic—before, a doctor saw patients once a week in the high school gym. It has a housing crunch and, in some sectors, a labor shortage. Electricians and plumbers are booked out for months.

Many of them work for “move-ins” such as Steve Roberts, a serial entrepreneur with thick-rimmed glasses who first visited after Clinton protected the area. “Escalante is magical,” Roberts says. In 2004 he bought Escalante Outfitters, a busy restaurant–bookstore–camping-supply store. (He has since sold it.) That year he also started an arts festival. Visit in late September, and you’re likely to see artists with umbrellas and easels painting blooming datura flowers or landscapes of white-rock immensity.

Some locals, however, believe the monument has hurt the region. After the designation in 1996, the government bought out coal leases on the Kaiparowits Plateau, inside the monument, and a planned coal mine never opened. Existing grazing leases were preserved and cattle numbers have remained steady, but ranchers complain that new environmental rules make it harder to prosper. The lumber mill, which struggled for years, closed for good in 2009.

“The natural resource jobs went away,” says Drew Parkin, a resource manager who once worked at Grand Staircase-Escalante but came to oppose how the monument was managed. “In an environment like this, tourism jobs can’t take their place—full-time jobs, with benefits, year-round.” In winter the only restaurant open in the town of Escalante is a Subway in a gas station. High school enrollment has dropped by more than half; young families have left.

Those declines, though, reflect larger trends across the rural West. “People blame the monument for everything bad,” Roberts says. Escalante’s travails predate the monument: Its population peaked in 1940 at more than 1,100 residents, and by 1970 it bottomed out at just over 600. Overgrazing, which made ranching less profitable, was one factor. A coal mine would have brought new jobs, but for how long? The coal market is depressed.

Instead it’s the New West economy that’s bringing employment. “I could name 10 businesses someone could start tomorrow that would thrive here,” says Blake Spalding, a wild-haired Buddhist restaurateur who co-owns Hell’s Backbone Grill in nearby Boulder, Utah. Her restaurant and 6.5-acre organic farm support 50 seasonal employees. “Most of them make double the minimum wage,” she says—albeit only from March to November.

Cutting the monument by nearly half, as Trump has done, is unlikely to jump-start the old economy—the coal is still too expensive to mine—but it has introduced uncertainty in the new one. “It’s been 22 years now,” says Spalding. “These gateway towns are full of people who made lives and families around the monument.”

“To gamble with the new economy that has grown up around the monument is shockingly reckless,” adds Nicole Croft of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a conservation group. In the years since the monument was created, Croft says, the move-ins had reached a kind of peace with the descendants of the Mormon pioneers. But Trump’s cuts have rekindled old hostilities. “It snapped really fast,” she says.

The Wahweap Hoodoos are one of the geologic marvels excluded from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument since Trump cut it nearly in half. The monument has boosted tourism, but some locals believe it has hurt the old economy based on ranching, timber, and mining.

Before anyone moved in and claimed the land—before natives, settlers, loggers, ranchers, second-home owners—there was the land itself. A thousand miles from Utah’s desert canyons, on the Pacific Crest Trail in southern Oregon, Dave Willis is keenly aware of that fact.

A Pacific storm is blowing in, clouds boiling with moisture. Willis, who chairs the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, has been advocating for this piece of the West—which now includes Cascade Siskiyou National Monument—for decades. At press time Trump hadn’t acted to cut the monument. Willis lives in its heart, in a tumbledown trailer in a former logging town. Short and sturdy, with a ruddy, graying beard, he lost large parts of his hands and feet to frostbite years ago, climbing in Alaska. He rides the trails on horseback.

Cascade Siskiyou was the first national monument named specifically to protect the plants and animals that predate us all. Clinton carved the monument in June 2000 from a landscape of hazy timberlands and undulant chaparral. It covered 85,000 acres then, including 32,000 acres of private inholdings, and the range of elevations and life zones it spanned made it, says Willis, “a veritable Noah’s ark of botanical diversity.” There are hundreds of species of flowering plants. Chickadees, hummingbirds, gnatcatchers, spotted owls, all adapted to different ecologies, live here in close proximity.

The original monument was small and not particularly controversial. But in 2011 a group of scientists determined that, as humans encroached on nearby habitat and as climate change pushed species outside the monument, its current boundaries weren’t sufficient. Heeding that argument, Obama doubled its size a week before he left office. Timber interests promptly sued, along with counties that had received timber revenue from land in the expansion area.

The resource economy in southern Oregon has been hurting for a long time. The number of timber jobs in the state has dropped from 15,000 to 5,000 over the past 40 years; a mere 385 remain in Jackson County, home to Cascade Siskiyou. County Commissioner Colleen Roberts grew up in nearby Klamath Falls. Her father worked in timber. “When I was in high school, that’s what the boys did, and it was good money,” she says. She opposes the monument expansion.

So does Lee Bradshaw, a third-generation rancher with an eagle nose and extravagant mustache. In a sun-baked meadow just outside the monument, he lays out a salt block and shouts for his cattle. The expansion preserved his grazing leases, but he’s seen neighbors quit and worries he’ll be regulated off the land. “I’ve never done nothing else but run cattle,” he says. Some years he doesn’t turn a profit; he gets health insurance through his wife, a nurse. “I never got in it for money. The only reason we do it is it’s our heritage. I want this to go on to my kids.”

To activists like Willis, heritage is no excuse. “What’s the result on the land of those connections to the past?” Willis asks. “Ranchers pay $1.41 a month for cattle to poop in creeks, break down streambeds, and spread weeds. They are the lords and ladies of yesteryear.”

Willis has his own preferred version of yesteryear: an old-growth grove that his group fought, successfully, to save from timber harvesting and include in the expanded monument. Red ribbons still droop from once doomed trees—ponderosa pines, lofty Douglas firs—as he rides into the heart of the grove. The wind rustles the high canopy; down below it is utterly still. Willis raises an arm toward a massive ponderosa.

“How old is this pine?” he asks. “Older than our nation.” He looks at the canopy around him. “This, here, is a forest,” he says. “And it’s tragic and heartbreaking that there’s so little of it left.”

“Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” the writer and conservationist Aldo Leopold once asked. Today, Willis says, “blank spots are having a rough go of it.” Americans look at the same breathtaking western landscapes and see different things: irreplaceable forests and canyons, the great houses and gravesites of cultures past, the homes and heritage and livelihoods of today. As the blank spots dwindle, the visions collide. Everyone feels something cherished is being taken away.

The legal challenges to Trump’s monument reductions in Utah may take years to resolve. But in August the administration proposed new management plans for the truncated monuments; its “preferred alternative” for lands removed from Grand Staircase-Escalante would open up nearly 660,000 acres to resource extraction. Mining interests are already staking claims. It’s unclear whether mining can proceed before the president’s legal authority to shrink monuments has been established. “I’m very concerned there’s going to be irreparable harm here,” says Croft, the Escalante conservationist.

Opposition to protecting western public lands has flared up ever since public lands were invented, yet the amount of protected land has—at least until now—steadily increased. Can any single presidential administration stand athwart history, demography, and economics in the West? Can it resist the new culture that—for better and worse—is supplanting the old one?

Some people hated setting aside the Grand Canyon, says Steve Roberts in Escalante. Now it’s an iconic national park. “How do you quell all this resentment and hate?” Roberts asks. “That’s easy. Wait three generations.”