Ten­der ground

Ex­plor­ing Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment

Motorcyclist - - Contents -

Ex­plor­ing the chang­ing shape of Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment

Stretch­ing from Four Cor­ners in the south­east of the state to just shy of Moab in the north, San Juan County, Utah, is as far from any­where as you’re likely to find. It’s al­most 8,000 square miles of lonely desert, a place larger than Con­necti­cut with a pop­u­la­tion of fewer than 17,000. In the wan­ing days of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, it be­came a na­tional fo­cal point when the fed­eral gov­ern­ment des­ig­nated 1.4 mil­lion of the county’s acres as Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment, all of which were al­ready un­der fed­eral man­age­ment. Less than a year later, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der re­duc­ing that ex­panse by 85 per­cent.

The area has be­come the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of Amer­ica’s bi­fur­cated po­lit­i­cal land­scape. We have no in­ter­est left ver­sus right, but the de­ci­sions around the mon­u­ment des­ig­na­tion have large and se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for mo­tor­cy­clists. We went to find out what’s at stake for rid­ers like us, those who love and need the wide out­doors. Utah is a rid­ing won­der­land, strung through with end­less, wind­ing pave­ment over bone and blood hills, spi­der­webbed with a vast tan­gle of trails that hunt out forgotten washes, their walls painted with 3,000-year-old pic­tographs. So much of it is pub­lic land. Fed­eral agen­cies like the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, the Na­tional For­est Ser­vice, and oth­ers man­age more than 70 per­cent of the state, mak­ing it se­cond only to Ne­vada in the to­tal num­ber of pub­lic acres.

Britt Bar­ton has lived in San Juan County his en­tire life and has spent his 47 years here rid­ing, build­ing a busi­ness and a fam­ily. He’s warm and open with clear eyes and a stiff gait, a gift from a way­ward SUV that took him off his R1200GS ear­lier this year and put him into a spinal brace. He’s op­ti­mistic about get­ting back on a bike, de­spite six frac­tured ver­te­brae, a frac­tured an­kle and scapula, and a trau­matic brain in­jury.

“They think I’m go­ing to re­cover,” he says at his desk at a mort­gage com­pany in down­town Bland­ing. “It’s cool. I feel lucky.”

He also feels lucky to live where he does, in the heart of one of the most beau­ti­ful ar­eas in the United States. When asked if the land in San Juan County is in need of pro­tec­tion, he took a long pause.

“You have those who live here and care about the land and have done a great job of tak­ing care of it for­ever who

def­i­nitely feel a threat, but it’s more a threat of ad­di­tional visi­ta­tion,” he says. “And then you have the camp who claims that there’s a threat of dam­age to cul­tural re­sources or the threat of min­eral ex­trac­tion, which, I don’t nec­es­sar­ily think those threats ex­ist. I don’t know that they believe that ei­ther. I think that they use that as a pawn to get what they want, which is lock­ing up the land.”

There is no of­fi­cial count of the num­ber of vis­i­tors who come to Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment or San Juan County each year. Friends of Cedar Mesa, a non­profit aimed at pro­tect­ing San Juan County’s pub­lic lands, says that visi­ta­tion to the area has quadru­pled since 2015. The group agrees with Bar­ton. Of all the dan­gers fac­ing the orig­i­nal Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment, dam­age from tourists is the most press­ing, with vis­i­tors pock­et­ing relics, dam­ag­ing ru­ins, and traips­ing over burial sites. But while Friends of Cedar Mesa be­lieves a mon­u­ment is the best way to pro­tect the area from more dam­age mov­ing for­ward, Bar­ton says the des­ig­na­tion would only bring more feet to the trails he’s known for decades.

“What’s ad­di­tional visi­ta­tion go­ing to do? Is it go­ing to hurt it or help it? It can only hurt it,” he says. “As that visi­ta­tion in­creases, you get more and more gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment in pro­vid­ing ser­vices, whether it’s build­ing a road or vis­i­tor’s cen­ters or law en­force­ment or what­ever, it’s just go­ing to in­crease the im­pact on the land.”

Like Bar­ton, Bill Boyle is a San Juan County na­tive. As the pub­lisher and ed­i­tor of the San Juan Record for 24 years, he’s watched his forgotten cor­ner of the West move steadily away from ob­scu­rity. The prob­lem, Boyle says, is that the on-again, off-again mon­u­ment has cre­ated a per­fect storm.

“I think the fed­eral gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, not know­ing what to do or what was go­ing to hap­pen, just kind of froze in place,” Boyle says. “We have no man­age­ment. No ad­min­is­tra­tion, noth­ing hap­pen­ing ex­cept un­prece­dented aware­ness of the area. We get lit­er­ally hun­dreds of thou­sands of vis­i­tors who come and want to know what to do and no one will tell them. Even more im­por­tantly, no one will tell them what not to do.”

Worse, the na­tional dust-up over the ini­tial des­ig­na­tion and the later re­duc­tion has turned the mon­u­ment is­sue into po­lit­i­cal quick­sand.

“Fed­eral agen­cies are work­ing to­wards developing the sorts of mech­a­nisms that need to be there, but it’s a long, in­volved pub­lic process, and ev­ery­one is so scared of their shadow be­cause of the po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy. I think the loser is the land it­self,” Boyle says.

It would take a life­time to hunt out ev­ery forgotten cor­ner of San Juan County. We took what we could get, a cou­ple of days’ worth of rid­ing, start­ing at the Bears Ears Buttes.

I am giddy with it, both the prospect of rid­ing through Bears Ears and throw­ing a leg over a Husq­varna 701 Enduro. Here is a bike I have pined for. On pa­per, it is every­thing I want out of a sure-footed dual-sport ma­chine, the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of the plod­ding Suzuki DRZ sit­ting in my shed at home. With 70 horsepower, I ex­pect it to be a thrasher, an eye-widen­ing colt, but it isn’t. The mus­cle comes on smooth and easy, giv­ing me plenty of time to con­sider my right wrist’s in­ten­tions.

A mo­tor­cy­cle is im­mer­sive by na­ture, bap­tiz­ing you in the world, wash­ing you in dust and light, and Bears Ears is deep with both. It would be bet­ter than 90 de­grees by noon, but at sun­rise, the air was cool and clear, the sky rich and blue. It was a long climb from the val­ley floor, the wide and graded for­est road snaking its way up through the stones and sand. Bull elk darted from the shad­ows, a blur of hide and antler stirred by our pass­ing, close enough for the earth smell of their fur to linger long af­ter they’d van­ished again.

The land greened up as we climbed, a rash of pon­derosa pine and as­pen bloom­ing from the red soil, nee­dles and leaves shim­mer­ing in the breeze. We split the buttes, stop­ping for a mo­ment at nearly 8,500 feet above sea level. The desert’s more alive up there, birds and

bugs all sing­ing their hearts out. Around the cor­ner, a herd of cat­tle grazed in the sharp light of the morn­ing.

De­spite the al­ti­tude, the 701 was glad to fill its sin­gle cylin­der in a press for more speed, but the road turned to ruin, fall­ing to deep silt again and again as we worked our way deeper into the mon­u­ment. The bike and I do fine un­til I fail to ad­e­quately slow for a deep patch. The front tire washes, and I take a dust bath, the fine grit stick­ing to the layer of sweat and sun­block coat­ing my ex­posed skin.

We rode a cir­cuit, a short 40-mile blast that put us at the trail­head for the House on Fire Ruin, a stone-and-mud silo built be­neath a loom­ing sand­stone over­hang. The rock rip­ples and con­torts, do­ing its best im­pres­sion of an in­ferno frozen in time. It’s an odd thing to step off a mod­ern, fuel-in­jected mo­tor­cy­cle, the best that con­tem­po­rary en­gi­neer­ing can achieve, and stand be­fore an an­cient struc­ture, to ad­mire the quirks of time and chance.

The ru­ins are noth­ing more than a few small cham­bers, but it was im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore their weight. There are over 100,000 ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites within the bound­aries of the orig­i­nal Bears Ears Mon­u­ment, rang­ing from im­pres­sive cliff dwellings to pic­tographs and small ar­ti­fact scat­ter­ings, some of which are more than 2,400 years old.

It’s dif­fi­cult to grasp that gulf in time un­til you find your­self stand­ing in the same spot as hu­mans who lived and worked and loved some four cen­turies be­fore Christ took his first trem­bling breaths. And when you see the lines they drew or the stones they stacked, there is no deny­ing the spark of con­nec­tion that lights in­side you. A short­cut across the mil­len­nia.

The night be­fore, we’d met Brett Wil­liams, a 28-year-old West Vir­ginia

na­tive liv­ing and study­ing in Mon­terey, Cal­i­for­nia, per­fectly at home camp­ing alone on the torn edge of the mesa. Her glasses and smile shined in the last light of the day when I asked her why she was there.

“I wanted to make the com­mu­nion with Bears Ears,” she said. “It’s been such a fo­cal point, I wanted to see it for my­self. It’s sa­cred. I study land con­ser­va­tion. In Cal­i­for­nia, there’s def­i­nitely in­tact pieces of land, but here, it’s so uniquely in­tact. It’s such a broad swath of func­tional ecosys­tem.”

In a way, Wil­liams and I are the vis­i­tors Boyle and Bar­ton worry about, the ones who’ve heard the call of a place so unique and came to see the land first­hand. Nei­ther of us will leave the same. She isn’t pro-mon­u­ment for the sake of lock­ing up the land.

“I think keep­ing a land whole is a good thing,” she said. “It can be a state park for all I care, it can be a county park if peo­ple are will­ing to in­vest the time and en­ergy to man­age it, that would be fine by me. As long as you can keep the land not de­te­ri­o­rated, ac­tively de­te­ri­o­rated, this is a good thing. Once it’s gone, you’re not re­ally go­ing to get it back.”

We sat on the trunk of her car and watched the sun slide be­low the hori­zon, set­ting that pre­vi­ously blue sky on fire be­fore a chorus of stars splat­tered their way from east to west. Wil­liams said that was the hard thing about pro­tected land. You have to keep pro­tect­ing it, again, and again.

That’s not an easy thing for mo­tor­cy­clists. Pub­lic land is part and par­cel to our hobby. We want to be there, want to pro­tect those places from devel­op­ment or clo­sure, but that pro­tec­tion so of­ten ex­cludes mo­tor­cy­cle use.

The ques­tion is whether that’s any great loss in Bears Ears. While beau­ti­ful, the rid­ing proved no more chal­leng­ing than plod­ding down a gravel drive­way. Moab, less than 80 miles north, of­fers some of the most spec­tac­u­lar OHV rid­ing in the world, far from the cul­tural sites and sen­si­tive ecol­ogy strewn across Cedar Mesa. But the thought of Bears Ears be­com­ing well-trod­den like Moab is enough to make you heart­sick. Maybe that’s why ev­ery­one we spoke to, re­gard­less of their stance on the mon­u­ment, be­lieves the land is un­der threat. No one who knows Bears Ears feels it isn’t worth pro­tect­ing, guard­ing so that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions can come and marvel at Amer­ica’s hu­man home.

b elow Lo­cal Britt Bar­ton is deeply pas­sion­ate about where he lives but be­lieves the ini­tial mon­u­ment des­ig­na­tion was a mis­take.

BE­LOW The land­scape changed as the road climbed up from the val­ley floor, the hill­side green­ing up with scrub and cedar.

ABOVE There’s no de­scrib­ing the tex­ture of the Utah desert, where spines and stones meet sand and shad­ows.

ABOVE Brett Wil­liams came to Bears Ears be­cause to her the place is sa­cred. It’s a sym­bol of what’s worth pro­tect­ing in the West.

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