The Bears Ears and the “local” card

One of the first “literary” things I ever wrote was a poem that began, “The Bears Ears, have you ever seen them?” It was hardly profound, had neither meter nor rhyme, and was only about five lines long. But then, I was only about seven years old, and I wrote it in one fell swoop while sitting by the side of the road to Hovenweep National Monument in southeastern Utah.

I can still remember the sage, stretching into the distance, the barbed wire fence and the way the silhouettes of those twin buttes rose up from Elk Ridge. I can’t remember why we were stopped in that particular place, though I suspect it was because of car troubles. My father was a writer and my mother was an artist, so we didn’t have much money and the family vehicle was usually some sort of dilapidated hand-me-down that soon reeked of cigarette smoke.

The old International Harvester pickup borrowed from my grandparents, themselves poor farmers, burned through a quart of oil every 100 miles or so and the cab leaked in the rain, which was fine, because my brother and I rode in the back. Our 1960s-era Volvo’s electrical system apparently couldn’t handle being submerged in Comb Wash, and got bogged down there for an extended period of time. The green Nova, borrowed from my dad’s mom, slid off the rain-slickened road to Chaco into a ditch, blocking traffic for hours, until a Navajo guy rallied bystanders to push the thing out.

But none of those vehicular woes stopped us from putting in miles and miles on the backroads and trails of the Four Corners Country. The region is called that because its center lies somewhere around the place where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet. Its outer reaches are vaguely defined by the four sacred peaks of both the Navajo and the Pueblos — it stretches from Lake Powell over to the San Luis Valley, and from the high San Juan Mountains down to beyond Zuni. We lived in Durango, Colorado, but considered ourselves residents of the Four Corners Country, first. We felt more closely connected to folks in Kayenta, for example, than those in Denver. The Bears Ears, like Shiprock, Navajo Mountain, the San Francisco Peaks or Ute Mountain, served as waypoints on the horizon. If you could see them, you knew you were in the Four Corners Country. You knew you were home.

That poem, rhapsodizing about the way Elk Ridge looks deep blue from that perspective and about how Cedar Mesa’s south end drops off in a peculiarly perfect right angle, was also about that notion: That we belong not to a state or county, bounded by arbitrary lines drawn by bureaucrats and surveyors, but to a region defined by topography, by watersheds and by deep history. The older I get, the more that truth resonates, both emotionally and intellectually. I feel the same sense of “homeness” when I’m walking Comb Ridge as I do when I drop into the Animas Valley, where I was born and where my great, great, great, great grandmother settled in 1874.

And so, it’s upsetting, even offensive, to hear the folks from San Juan County, Utah — particularly those opposed to a Bears Ears National Monument — discount the opinions of those who aren’t “local.” According to their reckoning, the only people who have any say over the land that lies within their county are the people who live there or, apparently, in the state of Utah as a whole. By this logic, someone from the urban Wasatch Front has a greater voice than, say, someone who lives in McElmo Canyon, a stone’s throw from the Utah-Colorado border.

This concept, of course, ignores the fact that the land in question is public, owned by all of the American people, giving even folks from New York City the same rights to an opinion about how it should be managed. But it is also ignorant of the truer sense of who or what is local. If it offends me, I can’t even imagine how Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye felt when locals yelled at him to “go home” as he tried to speak at the Bluff hearing on Bears Ears. Or when Utah politicians essentially said the same to folks from Hopi, Zuni and the Rio Grande Pueblos by indicating that they shouldn’t partake in the Public Lands Initiative process.

After all, they were home. The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa and the San Juan River are important places in both the deep and contemporary history of the Navajos — even for those, like Begaye, who now live on the other side of the Utah state line. And the ancestors of those who now live in Hopi and Zuni and the other pueblos lived in what is now southeastern Utah for hundreds of years. They farmed and established communities there. They held ceremonies at holy sites there. Their history is written all over that landscape. Seems pretty damned local to me.

I’ve spoken to a lot of people on various sides of the Bears Ears monument debate, and have heard strong arguments both for and against a monument. I’ll delve into those arguments in an upcoming story for High Country News. In the meantime, I hope the folks of San Juan County and Utah will stop playing the “local” card. It’s ignorant and, ultimately, ineffective. 

And the poem? I long ago forgot the rest of it. Though I do remember that the last line asked what the Bears Ears might have meant to the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in its shadow so many years before. I’m still asking that question.

(Photos below were made in August 2016 within the boundaries of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument. All photos by Jonathan P. Thompson.)

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  1. A well written piece, and I agree with some of the points. What is getting old are the efforts the left is going to to discredit the local opinion, rather than accept the simple fact the local populace of San Juan county clearly is opposed, all of them.


    1. Lynn, Thank you for the comment. But surely you know that not ALL of the residents of San Juan County are opposed to the monument. A majority of them? Perhaps. But even at the Bluff hearing, San Juan County residents spoke up in favor of the monument, from Liza Doran to Mark Maryboy to Malcolm Lehi. I’ve personally spoken to many other San Juan County residents who are in favor of a monument. And I’ve spoken to many who are opposed. It’s not a simple, black and white issue, nor is it a local vs. outsider issue. We’ll all be better off if we can recognize that and embrace the nuances. Thanks again for your comment. Sincerely, Jonathan Thompson


  2. Well yes, my comment that they “all” are against it was a bit hyperbolic. And certainly the new residents of Bluff over the last ten years have turned it into a liberal enclave, sort of “Moab south” if you will.

    My understanding is that San Juan County is considering putting it on the ballot this November. Then we can all be sure where SJ county stands. I would guess it will be 85-90% against. That’s not really “all”, but pretty dang close in my mind.

    I still stand by my critique of your story however. Your essay falls into a growing cacophony of those who are working hard to discount this significant local opposition. Would you dispute that?


    1. Lynn, While I appreciate the discussion and your comments, it’s fairly clear that you didn’t understand the post, or the previous pieces I’ve written that are linked to in the piece. They absolutely do NOT “discount … local opposition.” And so, yes, I would dispute your statement. This post isn’t even about pro- or anti-monument arguments, it’s about how we define a “local” in this particular region, which I call the Four Corners Country. I believe local voices from all sides should indeed be heard, it’s just that my definition of local is different than yours. If you’d read the piece with an open mind, I think you’d see that. Thanks.


  3. And just a quick followup if you’ll allow. The whole “local” issue would not be such a big issue in my mind if not for the fact that the Administation has openly and publicly stated that they won’t create monuments unless there is strong local consensus.

    I think it’s very clear there is no local consensus, other than a few folks in Bluff and a few tribal members strongly allied with the Navajo nation president. The San Juan County Commissioners are unanimously opposed. The Utah Congressional delegation is unanimously opposed. The Governor is opposed. A San Juan county vote in November will demonstrate a significant majority of residents are opposed.

    So how does one square that in light of the President and Secretaries previous statements of no monuments without local consensus? They set the standard. But there are those, including yourself, now working hard to justify ignoring that position.


  4. Yes they need to listen to all the local residents especially the Grassroots. Once Upon a Time our people They lived there in Bears ears Are people they’ve been relocated From there To an extension We are the descendants of k’aayelii. Bears ears mountain k’aayelii birth place. Public land initiative An intertribal coalition Don’t have no history.They just need to give it back to our people.


  5. Nice Jonathan. The locals know best argument has its limits. I sometimes think about the fact that we would probably still be waiting for segregated schools in the south to integrate if as a country we had decided to defer to the positions of local communities. There is value in the larger longer view perspective of what is in the public interest.

    And then there is definitely, as you point out, how do you define “local”? Just consider, for example, this map — which could be called “another ‘local’ perspective'”:

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you,for a well-balanced, nuanced opinion piece. It is subtle, even though it deals with an issue which is entrenched in deep ideology and -it would seem to me- personal, narrowly defined interests.
    The piece appeals to moral principles that -it should be commonplace to all; but it revealed not to be-. But what became obvious to me, after reading some of the comments following the article, is that there is a confusion (I would dare say deliberate?) of what constitutes locality; of who has a say “of better worth” if you will, on a matter which by its inception, by definition, is not local: the preservation of a land and the tangible testimonies of our past -yes, it is OUR past-, which define, trace, track and determine who we are, and who our children will be.
    Thus, we have a logical fallacy (assigning the local card on an issue which is not local according to this nation’s -admittedly loose- definition and clear political structure, UNESCO’s definition, UN definition etc.).
    We also have a conflict of interest(s) if we carefully examine and research the backstories of the officials and some of the residents, from energy industry ties, legislation attempts, and private land and otherwise interests pertaining to certain “locals.”
    Finally, we have a conflict regarding what constitutes locality: who is considered local, and why that -in this particular case- matters. I strongly feel that even though the first two claims derive from personal interest, the last one is purely ideological. And quite conveniently so.
    Allow me to say that, a scientific fact (or a “fact”) is something which is true regardless of whether we accept it, agree with it, or not. And the fact of the matter is that Bears Ears is part of the land of a multitude of native American tribes, most of which are here today; persistently, stubbornly being HERE to remind some of us, ridiculously recent inhabitants -some more recent that others- that if we really want to play the local card, we should be a bit more careful when assigning this term.
    Yes, the Hopi were here before the Dine’. And by all means the Ute were here before the Apache too. The means and ways their ancestral lands were acquired are not a matter of much debate, as, you see, we don’t deal with ancient, deep history which by certain standards become historiography, therefore a subject of interpretation, or -alas!- mere opinion.
    The “locals” of what is Bears Ears today -and beyond- have been here for roughly 100-150 years. The thousands of years before that, magically disappear -together with the thousands of sacred artifacts and memories of civilizations that were nourished in this same land- in the strange narrative of these “locals.” (remember the notorious sting in Blanding folks? and more importantly, the reaction of the locals afterwards?)
    Semiotically, semantically, this same persistent narrative lacks any rhetorical logic, or historical currency, or moral grounds, or any sense of commonly accepted basic decency, to stand in an assembly of equals.
    I am not from the Four Corners area. I am not even from this country. But being from a nation of over 20,000 years of history, I know a thing or two about what it feels like to walk on sacred ground. And allow me to say also that, I think I know what respect and justice look like too. Especially when put side by side with ephemeral, narrow and insecure voices which allow little or no room to a bunch of giants who have roamed this breath-taking, beautiful land for eons. As true locals.
    And this, my electronic interlocutors, is a fact..


  7. Thank you for your well-written, mindful, and heart-felt piece. The movement to preserve Bears Ears is an historic initiative. It honors the human presence of tens of thousands of years for uncounted generations to come, for all peoples. It protects sacred landscapes, both terrestrial and celestial, that reveal billions of years of history. It represents an important link between Canyonlands and Escalante that should remain accessible to all, as it is, as it has been.


  8. Nice piece…except the citizens of the Wasatch Front were not included in Bishop’s PLI. So the larger, by far, number of Utah citizens were excluded…btw the latest poll shows 55 per cent of Utahns are in favor of an Obama designation for a Bears Ears National Monument…The point, that Lynn and friends make, that any Monument designation should be determined only by those in San Juan County, I believe, was effectively rebutted in your piece…Of course, Lynn and friends in San Juan County are worried that they may not get to continue the lifestyle of their parents, grandparents and great grandparents…they are right to worry but they’d be better off if they spent the time considering on how they will adapt in a land that has always had a limited carrying capacity for humans.


  9. The issue isn’t “local control.” “Local control” is a red herring trotted out when convenient to bolster a political argument. Both conservatives and liberals argue for “local control” when it serves their political goals. One prominent example of this phenomenon is the opposition of pro-fracking groups in Colorado to LOCAL CONTROL of fracking activities. (Colorado state regulation is friendlier to fracking activities than are regulations sought by some Colorado localities.)

    Also, it is somewhat hypocritical that “locals” desire disproportionate control over land that they DO NOT OWN. What has happened to respect for property rights?

    Land can be owned by individuals, businesses, or governmental agencies. A governmental agency has the legal right to control the use of property it owns, just as an individual or business has these rights. Governmental agencies hold title to property.

    For example, San Juan County, or a local municipality (Bluff, Blanding, or Monticello) may hold title to park land within their borders. Thus, I am not free to use their park land as I please. For example, I cannot legally destroy a municipal park’s landscaping with my truck . . . I cannot legally take a picnic table from a municipal park for use at my home.

    Some “locals” may have simply grown accustomed to community or personal financial benefit from the use of public sector owned lands near their homes (again, property that they do not own.) Perhaps they are sympathetic to a long tradition of free rein for extractive industries on public lands, and taxpayer funded cleanup of consequent environmental damage? (Profit privatized, costs socialized.) But how is the taking, damage or destruction of public property (that one does not own) for private gain in conformance with conservative values? I don’t think it is.

    Perhaps, some “locals” feel nostalgia for a long tradition of unbridled looting of antiquities from nearby public lands, lands that are owned by all Americans? Fond family memories of picnics in the desert, the kids helping dig up a few old graves, and a search through ruins for artifacts illegally taken from property owned by others? Clearly not conservative family values.

    And for what benefit were these antiquities taken from this land owned by others? So that an 800 year-old pot could gather dust on a shelf in a private home for the remaining decades of a looter’s life? To what degree did these looted pots improve the looter’s quality of life? It was a mistake.

    Since federal public lands are owned by all Americans and not just the “locals,” the use or protection of federal public lands must be to the benefit of all Americans.


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