Protecting Cedar Mesa’s Wild Beauty and Sacred Sites

The Bears Ears on the Horizon (Photo by Shaan Hurley available on Flickr)

In the southeastern corner of Utah sits the quiet plateau of Cedar Mesa. During the day, clouds cast shadows over the sandy stretches of juniper, sage, and piñon. At night, stars spill across the sky. Two matching buttes, known as Bears Ears, rise in the distance beckoning rock climbers. The colors of the land, the stirrings of desert animals, and the windless warmth all contribute to the site’s vibrancy — a vibrancy that only increases the more you learn about Cedar Mesa’s history.

As Kate Siber wrote for the Washington Post, “Noticing how alive it is takes time.”

Hidden among Cedar Mesa’s canyons are the ancient sweat lodges, trash heaps, dwellings, graves, and art — the homes of the Native Americans who lived there for millenia. Hikers stumble upon pottery in ancient sacrifice sites and sift through fire pits to find tiny eaten corn cobs. The past is literally at the fingertips of anyone who visits…which may not be a good thing.

To protect the beautiful landscape and ancient history of Cedar Mesa and the 1.9 million acres that surround it, a coalition of Native American tribes are working with the county and federal government to shield their ancestral homeland and sacred sites from vandalism, looting, development, and mining. Will they succeed?

A Long History, Tied to the Land

Although the archaeological record spans more than 12,000 years, many Native Americans believe that their people have occupied the Cedar Mesa region for tens of thousands of years or longer. The estimated 56,000 archaeological sites in the area paint a picture of the paleoindian Clovis culture, the early agricultural Basketmaker period, and the region’s connections with New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and Colorado’s Mesa Verde.

Needless to say, it is an invaluable link to ancient history in a fairly young country.

But Cedar Mesa is also an invaluable spiritual and cultural site to Native Americans. Modern day Pueblo people believe that the Cedar Mesa sites are still occupied by the spirits of their ancestors. The Ute, Paiute, and Navajo also have important spiritual and cultural ties to the area, and depend on the land for traditional ritual, medicinal, and economic substance.

“Our people believe that they came from the ground and we live in the fourth world. The environment, the land — Mother Earth — sustains human beings. It’s food, medicine, a place of worship. It’s heaven on earth. As native Americans, in our heart, in our soul, we believe that the land belongs to us,” said Mark Maryboy, a resident on the Navajo Reservation, in a campaign video for the protection of Cedar Mesa.

Desecration and Degradation

An ancient grave desecrated by looters. (Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.)

Like most unprotected land, Cedar Mesa and the surrounding area face threats from numerous sources. Oil and gas companies, as well as potash miners, only see the value of the minerals laying beneath the beautiful landscape and archaeological sites. Off-road vehicles and uneducated visitors rip through the area, destroying artifacts and desert resources.

But perhaps the most egregious violations to Cedar Mesa are the looters and grave robbers. Laws and steep fines haven’t deterred those seeking to make a quick buck, or fanatics interested in keeping a piece of history for themselves.

In the 1970s, commercial “pot hunters” were digging for ancient artifacts with trenchers and backhoes, even flying to hard-to-reach spots in the Cedar Mesa area in helicopters. In 1986, heavily armed federal agents raided 16 homes and trading posts in a town just north of Cedar Mesa. And more than a dozen serious looting cases were reported between May 2014 and April 2015.

Working to Protect the Sacred Sites and Ancient Artifacts

Big Ledge Ruin (Photo by Jake Hutchinson available on Flickr)

Currently, Cedar Mesa and the surrounding area are under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. However, the BLM does not have the capability to police the area — it only has one dedicated law enforcement officer for the entire county currently — and there is no guarantee the land won’t be leased to miners, oil and gas companies, and developers in the future.

To protect their sacred sites and ancient artifacts, the Navajo Nation and the San Juan County Commission entered into an agreement to address the need for increased regulations in the area. In 2013, the Navajo presented the commissioners and Utah congressional representatives with a plan to designate 1.9 million acres around Cedar Mesa as the Bears Ears National Conservation Area. Since then, a coalition of Native American and conservation groups have engaged in legislative discussions led by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz about the land designation.

But as time passes, a shadow of distrust is growing.

Although Bishop was supposed to unveil a draft of the National Conservation Area last March, nothing has been released, and Native Americans are concerned that they’re being left out of key discussions. There was also a private meeting between Native American tribes and key officials within the Department of Interior this July, sparking speculation that tribes may bypass the legislative process and seek a possible national monument designation.

Give the Land, the People, and Our History the Respect They Deserve

Last December, Congress permitted a company to mine under a sacred Apache site last December. It’s hard to forget that fact as time passes and no federal action to protect Cedar Mesa and the surrounding lands is taken. Is Rep. Bishop really working to create a National Conservation Area that will give the land, the Native American tribes, and our American history the respect they deserve? Or is he working with oil and gas companies to protect their interests?

Given the atrocities the American government has inflicted on Native Americans, it’s hard to trust that Congress will do the right thing and protect the land. And the wild beauty, cultural value, and rich history is nothing something to gamble lightly.

If you want to get involved in urging the federal government to designate the Bears Ears National Conservation Area click here.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .