Many of us take credit for discovering the magic and wonder of Cedar Mesa, convinced it was vastly unexplored when we showed up.
In some eyes, it still is a wonderland. But word of mouth and the Internet have hastened the end of its waning anonymity. Innumerable blogs and YouTube videos illustrate the area’s remote canyons and ruins and often tell you how to get there.
To a growing cadre of Southeast Utah lovers, the situation no longer is tenable. Even if no one was bent on looting and pillaging archaeological sites – which unfortunately isn’t true – the sheer number of visitors vastly is changing the experience.
Cedar Mesa is under siege.
“A Google-driven free-for-all,” says Josh Ewing, director of Friends of Cedar Mesa.
So the question of the hour: Should this area – rich both in archaeological sites and in its vanishing quantities of quiet, dark sky and solitude – be protected? And if so, how?
All eyes are on the Utah Public Lands Initiative, led by U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both R-Utah. It’s an attempt to create a citizen-driven bill that would settle land issues in eastern Utah – “a real balance between conservation and responsible development,” Bishop says on his website.
On the larger scale, the initiative includes 18 million acres of federal lands in seven counties. On a smaller scale, it potentially could create a National Conservation Area for Cedar Mesa. The congressmen have set March 27 as the date to unveil the overall plan.
Friends of Cedar Mesa, or FCM, has been involved in crafting the portion of the plan involving San Juan County, a lightly populated region in Utah’s far southeast that includes Cedar Mesa and parts of Canyonlands National Park and the Navajo Nation.
This coming weekend, FCM is hosting its annual gathering in Bluff, Utah. Ewing expects about 300 people for Saturday’s discussions and presentations on key issues. They’ll come from all over the Four Corners, with a healthy number from Cortez and Durango.
“We double the size of Bluff for the day,” he said.
They’ll discuss the future, and they’ll discuss the past. In this case, both are relevant: Both may need protection.
And that’s one of the themes of a film that will be shown Friday evening at the gathering’s opening reception. The documentary “Waking the Mammoth” came to life in December 2012, when Durangoan Larry Ruiz filmed the celebratory burning of a life-sized wooden-stick mammoth built in Bluff. A debate rages over whether an ancient rock art drawing southwest of Bluff is a 13,000-year-old mammoth.
Ruiz set about interviewing people who know Cedar Mesa, who have some perspective on the worth of ancestral Puebloan sites. Why does it matter that we preserve the past?
Jonathan Till, an archaeologist based out of Bluff for more than 20 years, says the county’s 30,000-plus documented sites – several more than 10,000 years old – deserve some level of protection – perhaps more rangers, definitely more archaeologists. He said in a phone interview that Cedar Mesa ruins offer a rare insight into man’s transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturists.
“That’s a crucible we’ve all gone through on this planet,” said Till, who appears in Ruiz’s film. “The stuff that we’re grappling with on Cedar Mesa is a very important chunk of time to the rest of humanity. ... In many other places, that chunk of the story is missing or it’s so fragmented it’s hard to look at.”
Ruiz, who volunteers as a site steward in southeastern Utah for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, concluded his last interview a year ago, then gathered scenic shots, including time lapses and aerial overviews with a drone.
Perhaps Ruiz’s favorite interviewee was Blanding, Utah, resident Winston Hurst, a semi-retired consulting archaeologist. Hurst grew up in Blanding in the early 1960s, when protecting sites was not a concern.
“When you were 12, you got a .22, and you hunted rabbits, and you collected artifacts,” Hurst said in a phone interview. “It was in our bones.”
He quickly changed his views once he began work as a professional in 1973. But he looks back fondly at those days.
“I’d spend a day or two until the silence got creepy, and then I’d fly back to civilization and go see a movie or something,” Hurst said.
When you’re with one or more people, “Everything becomes a stage setting for the social interactions. Everything fades to the background. Once you’re alone, eyeball to eyeball with the world, it’s a whole different place. You see things in a whole different way. That’s when it’s at its best. That’s the thing about it I miss the most,” Hurst said.
It’s easy to cringe when he talks about “the greening of San Juan County,” meaning the proliferation of Colorado license plates. But each footfall has been followed by others, almost exponentially. Even with love and respect, the human invasion has an effect.
People either innocently taking a potsherd or purposely looting both are “vectors of death” that are sterilizing the archaeological landscape, Hurst said.
Ewing, the FCM director, was a member of the San Juan County Lands Council, which developed three alternatives that were presented at public open houses in November. County commissioners now are crafting the final proposal. The plan includes not just protecting landscapes but settling where ranching and resource development can occur.
“For decades, unsettled land-use designations ... have fueled distrust and acrimony,” Bishop, R-Utah, says on his website.
Alternative “A,” which puts 468,000 acres of Cedar Mesa into a National Conservation Area, was agreed on by all the council members. Ewing is pushing for alternative “B” or even “C,” which puts 713,000 acres of Cedar Mesa into the conservation area.
If the initiative fails, a presidentially decreed national monument is a possibility, Ewing and others noted. A conservation area is more palatable to locals, because it gives them more say and control.
The hope, Ewing said, is that having more management resources that an NCA provides would prevent the “uneducated, unmanaged and unfunneled” visitation that is happening now.
“One thing that’s certain is that visitation is increasing and will continue to increase,” Ewing said. “Our hope is we can get our hands around that issue.”
To Hurst, neither scenario makes him happy: More rules that a federal designation would bring, or too many unsupervised people tromping the land.
“It’s so distasteful for me,” Hurst said. “I don’t see a future for it that makes me happy.
“The only thing that’s going to save it is for people to really understand why it matters and to get protective of it.”
John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column. email@example.com