By Matthew Anderson
Supporters of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument paint a vivid picture of ATVs running over ancient pottery, tourists etching initials into petroglyphs, and archaeologists digging up Native American burial grounds.
While there is no denying the sad reality of such activities in the past, San Juan County Navajos feel that public education campaigns and federal laws are now effective at protecting these invaluable cultural resources.
What does concern them, however, is the likelihood that a national monument designation would bring flocks of tourists to the area, putting cliff dwellings, rock art, prehistoric villages and sacred sites at risk as never before.
Federal law and public opinion have come a long way on this subject since the turn of the 20th century. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw Native American graves desecrated and ancient ruins destroyed. President Theodore Roosevelt recognized this and was instrumental in passing the first comprehensive legislation protecting our nation’s cultural resources. Since that time, public education campaigns and federal laws have evolved to prevent such travesties.
Bears Ears monument advocates say a designation would heighten the protection of the area’s cultural resources through laws and additional enforcement, but in reality it could have the opposite effect. A national monument designation does not bring with it any additional special protections. The area is already protected.
What would change, however, is the number of hikers, campers, and tourists that visit the area. This increased traffic would put the cultural resources of the area at an increased risk of destruction and desecration – especially considering that the federal government can’t afford to provide additional law enforcement to the area.
Federal land management agencies are strapped for cash. The National Park Service has a deferred maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion – an amount five times that of its latest budget from Congress. This total consists of all the maintenance projects that were not completed on schedule and therefore have been put off or delayed. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service aren’t doing much better, as they have a combined backlog of almost $6 billion.
Whether the proposed Bears Ears National Monument would be managed by one or a combination of these federal agencies, the additional enforcement promoted by its advocates is not financially feasible.
San Juan County Navajos understand these realities and oppose a national monument designation. Not only would a designation do nothing more to preserve the land they call sacred, but a lack of law enforcement would put their cultural resources at new risk. The creation of a national monument would upset a system that Utah Navajos believe already protects the land and their history.
To learn more about the five most important laws protecting Native American artifacts, archaeological sites and sacred places, click the links below:
Matthew Anderson is a policy analyst for the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.