Exploring Bears Ears National Monument
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.