Na­ture’s mon­u­ments

Stand­ing like im­pos­ing stone-faced guardians of the proud culture and history of Na­tive Amer­i­cans, these struc­tures are also out­door museums.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By BRAD BRANAN

HIK­ING Owl Canyon in south­east­ern Utah, I reach a dry water­fall too steep to de­scend, forc­ing me to ex­plore both sides of the canyon in search of a path down. I find a route that fun­nels me back into the canyon, which quickly be­comes crowded with boul­ders, block­ing my progress again.

Anx­ious to clear the ob­sta­cles, I nearly miss the ru­ins tucked into an al­cove to my right. I climb a large rock and hop down about 3m, land­ing in front of the ru­ins.

Around 1,000 years old, the three ma­sonry struc­tures are well pre­served. A cir­cu­lar build­ing with a small en­try­way sits in front of two smaller build­ings, one of which has a real-life corn cob on it, sug­gest­ing it was a gra­nary.

The ru­ins are all the more re­mark­able for be­ing un­ex­pected, and they fill me with a sense of dis­cov­ery. Cedar Mesa, pub­lic land su­per­vised by the fed­eral Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, con­tains hun­dreds of sim­i­lar sites that give vis­i­tors the op­por­tu­nity to see the ar­chi­tec­tural re­mains of the Anasazi, an­ces­tors of the mod­ern Pue­blo In­di­ans. Some peo­ple ar­gue that this is the best way to learn about one of the coun­try’s first civil­i­sa­tions, away from the crowds and in­ter­pre­ta­tive dis­plays found at museums or na­tional parks.

Greater Cedar Mesa is “an iconic area in North Amer­i­can arche­ol­ogy”, ac­cord­ing to the lead story in a 2014 edi­tion of Ar­chae­ol­ogy South­west Magazine ded­i­cated to the re­gion.

Un­for­tu­nately, largely un­fet­tered ac­cess to the ru­ins has also al­lowed for van­dal­ism and loot­ing, which is why a coali­tion of five In­dian tribes has asked Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to turn 0.769 mil­lion ha into a na­tional mon­u­ment. The pro­posed Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment, named af­ter a pair of buttes in the area, would be be­tween other fed­eral land – Glen Canyon Na­tional Recre­ation Area and Cany­on­lands Na­tional Park – and in­cor­po­rate ex­ist­ing fed­eral land, in­clud­ing Nat­u­ral Bridges Na­tional Mon­u­ment and Cedar Mesa.

Wor­ried about min­ing pro­pos­als as well as van­dal­ism and theft, the tribes say mon­u­ment sta­tus will help save “Amer­ica’s most sig­nif­i­cant un­pro­tected cul­tural land­scape”.

The pro­posal has ig­nited a vir­u­lent de­bate in Utah fo­cus­ing on the con­flict among the tribes, their sup­port­ers and some Utah politi­cians and res­i­dents who want to use some of the land for eco­nomic devel­op­ment.

An­other ques­tion has re­ceived less at­ten­tion: How would the area be pro­tected as a mon­u­ment? The an­swer has not come in any de­tail. While pro­tec­tion of the ru­ins and the area’s tremen­dous nat­u­ral beauty may sound like a great idea, some res­i­dents and Cedar Mesa en­thu­si­asts worry about what the change would mean for ac­cess. The tribes say a man­age­ment plan would be com­pleted af­ter the mon­u­ment is des­ig­nated.

I vis­ited Cedar Mesa just two years ago but wanted to re­turn be­fore any changes are made. See­ing the ru­ins, the huge “Goose­necks” – a suc­ces­sion of curved canyons in the San Juan River – and the re­mark­able rock for­ma­tions in the Val­ley of the Gods, I be­came con­vinced the area was wor­thy of pro­tec­tion. But at what cost?

De­spite its lo­ca­tion near three na­tional parks – Zion, Bryce and Cany­on­lands – this swath of canyon coun­try has never at­tracted huge crowds, cre­at­ing less need for pro­tec­tion. It was in the “last blank spot on the map” un­til John Wes­ley Pow­ell led his ex­pe­di­tions of the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871. While fol­low­ing Pow­ell’s foot­steps nearly a cen­tury later, au­thor Wal­lace Steg­ner wrote that start­ing a trip there is “to start off into empty space from the end of the world”.

The rugged, arid land has de­terred pop­u­la­tion growth, and only a few thou­sand peo­ple live in the towns on the edges of the pro­posed mon­u­ment, with the ex­cep­tion of grow­ing Moab on the far eastern end.

Still, in­ter­est in the area has in­creased. Some peo­ple, like me, were drawn to Cedar Mesa by a pair of books by best-sell­ing ad­ven­ture writer David Roberts, In Search

Of The Old Ones and The Lost World Of The

Old Ones. Roberts fo­cuses heavily on Cedar Mesa in the books, ad­vanc­ing the idea of for­mer BLM ranger Fred Black­burn that it’s an “out­door mu­seum” where peo­ple can un­der­stand how ge­og­ra­phy in­flu­enced life there. Black­burn be­lieved that find­ing the ru­ins in their nat­u­ral set­tings forged a strong con­nec­tion to the past.

Web­sites and books have pub­lished the GPS co­or­di­nates of many of the best-known sites in Cedar Mesa, which has brought chal­lenges such as more than a dozen se­ri­ous loot­ing cases re­ported be­tween May 2014 and April 2015, ac­cord­ing to the Bears Ears Coali­tion web­site.

But loot­ing seems less of a prob­lem than van­dal­ism and other forms of de­struc­tion, if only be­cause there’s lit­tle left to steal. Peo­ple have been tak­ing pots, jew­ellery and other items from the ru­ins since white peo­ple “found” them in the late 1800s. Many of the trea­sures ended up in museums, while oth­ers have been sold on the black mar­ket.

On my re­cent trip, I was hor­ri­fied to see graf­fiti scrawled all over the Sand Is­land pet­ro­glyph, one of the most im­por­tant rock art sites in the South­west. On a long panel, pictures of Kokopelli, the hump­backed flute player, and an­i­mals stand next to mod­ern mark­ings such as “John”, “1963” and “Custer died for your sins”.

High in­ter­est in the Moon House ruin forced the BLM to re­strict ac­cess to 20 peo­ple a day through a per­mit process, even though the site sits on a cliff in a re­mote and steep canyon. The for­mer US Sec­re­tary of the In­te­rior Sally Jewell vis­ited Moon House dur­ing a trip to meet with lead­ers about the Bears Ears pro­posal ear­lier this year.

“What I have seen on this trip and es­pe­cially here is this in­cred­i­ble trea­sure trove of cul­tural re­sources,” she said, ac­cord­ing to the De­seret News. “It’s be­yond imag­i­na­tion. I am also shocked at the lack of pro­tec­tion for many of these as­sets.”

The Bears Ears pro­posal calls for the mon­u­ment to be run by the tribes and fed­eral gov­ern­ment. The Bears Ears Coali­tion web­site, which in­cludes the pro­posal given to Obama, does not pro­vide specifics, say­ing the “col­lab­o­ra­tive man­age­ment en­vi­sioned by this pro­posal will in­volve de­tails that are too spe­cific to be cov­ered”. The web­site says vis­i­tors will be able to con­tinue to visit the ru­ins. Mes­sages left with Bears Ears repre- sen­ta­tives for this story were not re­turned.

The Anasazi built small vil­lages in the al­coves of canyon walls, now called “cliff dwellings”. Moon House is unique in South­west ar­chae­ol­ogy be­cause it has a ma­sonry fa­cade, be­hind which stand a num­ber of rooms. Some of them are dec­o­rated with pic­tographs, such as the one with a par­tial moon giving the place its name. The enor­mous size and well-pre­served con­di­tion of Moon House make it a na­tional trea­sure. When I got my per­mit to see Moon House, a BLM ranger asked me not to en­ter the rooms, which he said con­tained elec­tronic sen­sors to alert au­thor­i­ties.

Most ru­ins in Cedar Mesa have no pro­tec­tion what­so­ever, ex­cept for small signs ask­ing peo­ple not to en­ter the rooms. Vis­i­tors are al­lowed to en­ter one of the rooms, Per­fect Kiva, a ruin in Cedar Mesa’s Bul­let Canyon, where vis­i­tors can climb into the main build­ing.

Even though I had GPS co­or­di­nates for the site and direc­tions from a ranger, find­ing Per­fect Kiva was no easy task, as is of­ten the case when look­ing for ru­ins in Cedar Mesa. The search, how­ever, height­ens the re­ward when find­ing them.

A top challenge is the rugged ter­rain of steep canyons with prim­i­tive trails. The ru­ins are also of­ten built in el­e­vated, in­con­spic­u­ous places, which might have been the in­tent of in­hab­i­tants try­ing to avoid de­tec­tion. While most of the An­ces­tral Pue­bloans did not live in cliff dwellings, such set­tings be­came in­creas­ingly com­mon and “de­fence seems to be the only log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion for site place­ment,” Stephen Plog writes in his book An­cient Peo­ples Of The Amer­i­can South­west.

Climb­ing down the lad­der into Per­fect Kiva, I no­ticed the hole and felt a lit­tle un­easy. Maybe I was breach­ing a spir­i­tual code. I also wasn’t used to hav­ing this kind of ac­cess to a ruin. I felt a sense of awe. The kiva can be en­tered be­cause it was re­stored by the BLM in the 1970s.

Per­fect Kiva is un­usual in that it has its orig­i­nal roof. A short dis­tance away sits an­other well-pre­served site, Jail­house Ruin, so named be­cause of the pieces of wood placed over a win­dow that mimic the bars of a cell. Jail­house Ruin and Per­fect Kiva are two of the best-known ru­ins in Cedar Mesa, and they have re­mained in­tact de­spite many vis­its. They’re es­pe­cially valu­able cul­tural re­sources be­cause they can be ex­pe­ri­enced up close, not from be­hind a fence.

If Bears Ears is ap­proved, I hope that doesn’t change. As a writer in Ar­chae­ol­ogy

South­west Magazine put it, “the challenge is to pow­er­fully pro­tect that (ar­chae­o­log­i­cal) record, while con­tin­u­ing to pro­vide mean­ing­ful op­por­tu­ni­ties for dis­cov­ery and re­flec­tion”.


A rock for­ma­tion in the Val­ley of the Gods, which con­tains enough re­mark­able ge­ol­ogy to in­vite com­par­isons with nearby Mon­u­ment Val­ley in Utah.

Nevills Arch is one of many beau­ti­ful rock for­ma­tions in the Fish and Owl Canyons.

Moon House, in south-east Utah, is within the pro­posed Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment.

— AKOS KOKAI/Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Yucca Cave is part of the an­cient Pue­bloan (Anasazi) ru­ins.

House on Fire Ru­ins is one of hun­dreds of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites In­dian tribes hope to pro­tect as part of a pro­posed Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment.

Sun shin­ing into the House on Fire Ru­ins.

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