Looters, vandals threaten some of America's great archaeological sites in Bears Ears

Rock art and other cultural sites are threatened by looting and vandalism in Bears Ears.

Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS).

Looting and grave robbing have damaged Utah's Bears Ears region, demonstrating a clear need for national monument status and protection.

More than 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites make Bears Ears a national treasure. Perhaps nowhere in the country are so many well-preserved cultural resources—from ancient ruins to intricate 1,500-year-old petroglyphs—found within such a striking and relatively undeveloped natural landscape. 

But in recent years, this precious wildland has been under relentless assault. According to some estimates, there have been dozens of cases of looting, vandalism or "disturbance of human remains" in the area since the year 2011. Troubling incidents in the Bears Ears region have included the dismantling of a Navajo structure for use as firewood, names gouged into rock art and thousands of artifacts stolen from public lands. 

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured vandalized and damaged cultural sites in Bears Ears in 2016. Credit: Matt Keller (TWS).

This wave has been so widespread that a former state archaeologist of Utah reported inadvertently coming across evidence of grave robbing while hiking. Before a public meeting in the area in July 2016, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell herself toured vandalized petroglyphs and a picked-over rock shrine. 

Why we must protect Bears Ears as a national monument 

Some tribal leaders express concerns that unchecked vandalism will leave important sites in Bears Ears completely ruined. Fortunately, there are some ways we can try to prevent this—chief among them, protecting Bears Ears through the Antiquities Act. 

Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act authorized all future presidents to protect historic landmarks or objects of “scientific interest” on public lands as national monuments. That law originally grew out of a movement to preserve deteriorating archaeological resources, some of which had become targets of vandalism. This is exactly the threat that now faces Bears Ears, as noted by the Vice-Chairman of the Hopi Nation, Alfred Lomahquahu. 

"There is so much that needs to be protected from our history." - Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, councilwoman of Ute Mountain Ute Tribe 

Numerous Native American sites have since been protected under the Antiquities Act, including New Mexico’s Aztec Ruins National Monument, designated in 1923, and Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, designated in 2000.  

Recently, Native tribes have led the charge to permanently protect Bears Ears too—notably, a coalition of 5 tribes, supported by 21 others with direct ties to the region. In October 2015, tribal representatives petitioned President Obama to protect Bears Ears as a national monument. This was thought to be the first time Native tribes had ever joined forces to ask a president to designate a national monument. 

“The cultural resources here, the petroglyphs, the structures, all of this, is evidence of the Native people who lived in and passed through the Bears Ears. It provides a link to our ancestors, from long ago," explained Zuni Elder Octavius Seowtewa in a report published by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. "This cultural information is important for all Native people. This is why tribes have set aside any differences and come together: if this information is lost, it’s lost forever.”   

Opposition persists, despite broad support 

Polling shows that 71 percent of registered Utah voters support monument status for Bears Ears. Unfortunately, an entrenched minority is still trying to stop it. A San Juan County commissioner has baselessly suggested that monument supporters, not vandals, are looting tribal sites. In one especially ludicrous turn, a Utah state representative suggested that mischievous badgers have been the ones digging up artifacts at Bears Ears. 

Some politicians in Utah have claimed to care about preserving culture in the Bears Ears region but not followed through. One example is a plan recently released called the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), led by Rep. Bishop, a frequent opponent of conservation. While recognizing the need to protect sensitive Utah landscapes like Bears Ears, the PLI disregarded agreements carefully crafted by stakeholders and amounted to a step backwards in safeguarding Utah’s “red rock” country for future generations. It is reassuring to see general agreement that Bears Ears should be protected, but PLI was the wrong vehicle to make it happen. 

A coalition of Native American tribes have said that a conservation area like that proposed in the PLI would not offer the protection necessary to prevent looting and other damage. Other critics have called it "a disaster" and "a fraud." In turn, the tribal-coalition sought out presidential intervention only after it had lobbied for a legislative monument designation and felt excluded from the PLI.  

Over the years, one thing has become increasingly clear: only national monument status can give Bears Ears the protection it deserves. 

It is time to #ProtectBearsEarsNow 

The Antiquities Act has been used on a bipartisan basis by almost every president, serving as an important contingency plan to protect public lands or historic landmarks that are in physical danger. If there is a place that encompasses all of the values this law was designed to preserve, Bears Ears is it.  

Take action: Tell President Obama to #ProtectBearsEarsNow