on Fire Ruins is one of hundreds of archaeological
sites Indian tribes hope to protect as part of a
proposed Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
MESA, Utah — Hiking Owl Canyon in southeastern Utah, I
reach a dry waterfall too steep to descend, forcing me to
explore both sides of the canyon in search of a path down.
I find a route that funnels me back into the canyon, which
quickly becomes crowded with boulders, blocking my
to clear the obstacles, I nearly miss the ruins tucked
into an alcove to my right. I climb a large rock and hop
down about 10 feet, landing in front of the ruins.
1,000 years old, the three masonry structures are well
preserved. A circular building with a small entryway sits
in front of two smaller buildings, one of which has a
real-life corn cob on it, suggesting it was a granary.
ruins are all the more remarkable for being unexpected,
and they fill me with a sense of discovery. Cedar Mesa,
public land supervised by the federal Bureau of Land
Management, contains hundreds of similar sites that give
visitors the opportunity to see the architectural remains
of the Anasazi, ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians.
Some people argue that this is the best way to learn about
one of the country’s first civilizations, away from the
crowds and interpretative displays found at museums or
Cedar Mesa is "an iconic area in North American
archeology," according to the lead story in a 2014
edition of Archaeology Southwest Magazine dedicated to the
largely unfettered access to the ruins has also allowed
for vandalism and looting, which is why a coalition of
five Indian tribes has asked President Barack Obama to
turn 1.9 million acres into a national monument. The
proposed Bears Ears National Monument, named after a pair
of buttes in the area, would be between other federal land
— Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands
National Park — and incorporate existing federal land,
including Natural Bridges National Monument and Cedar
about mining proposals as well as vandalism and theft, the
tribes say monument status will help save "America’s
most significant unprotected cultural landscape."
proposal has ignited a virulent debate in Utah focusing on
the conflict among the tribes, their supporters and some
Utah politicians and residents who want to use some of the
land for economic development.
question has received less attention: How would the area
be protected as a monument? The answer has not come in any
detail. While protection of the ruins and the area’s
tremendous natural beauty may sound like a great idea,
some residents and Cedar Mesa enthusiasts worry about what
the change would mean for access. The tribes say a
management plan would be completed after the monument is
visited Cedar Mesa just two years ago but wanted to return
before any changes are made. Seeing the ruins, the huge
"Goosenecks" — a succession of curved canyons
in the San Juan River — and the remarkable rock
formations in the Valley of the Gods, I became convinced
the area was worthy of protection. But at what cost?
its location near three national parks — Zion, Bryce and
Canyonlands — this swath of canyon country has never
attracted huge crowds, creating less need for protection.
It was in the "last blank spot on the map" until
John Wesley Powell led his expeditions of the Colorado
River in 1869 and 1871. While following Powell’s
footsteps nearly a century later, author Wallace Stegner
wrote that starting a trip there is "to start off
into empty space from the end of the world."
rugged, arid land has deterred population growth, and only
a few thousand people live in the towns on the edges of
the proposed monument, with the exception of growing Moab
on the far eastern end.
interest in the area has increased. Some people, like me,
were drawn to Cedar Mesa by a pair of books by
best-selling adventure writer David Roberts, "In
Search of the Old Ones" and "The Lost World of
the Old Ones." Roberts focuses heavily on Cedar Mesa
in the books, advancing the idea of former BLM ranger Fred
Blackburn that it’s an "outdoor museum" where
people can understand how geography influenced life there.
Blackburn believed that finding the ruins in their natural
settings forged a strong connection to the past.
and books have published the GPS coordinates of many of
the best-known sites in Cedar Mesa, which has brought
challenges such as more than a dozen serious looting cases
reported between May 2014 and April 2015, according to the
Bears Ears Coalition website.
looting seems less of a problem than vandalism and other
forms of destruction, if only because there’s little
left to steal. People have been taking pots, jewelry and
other items from the ruins since white people
"found" them in the late 1800s. Many of the
treasures ended up in museums, while others have been sold
on the black market.
my recent trip, I was horrified to see graffiti scrawled
all over the Sand Island petroglyphs, one of the most
important rock art sites in the Southwest. On a long
panel, pictures of Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player,
and animals stand next to modern markings such as
"John," "1963" and "Custer died
for your sins."
interest in the Moon House ruin forced the BLM to restrict
access to 20 people a day through a permit process, even
though the site sits on a cliff in a remote and steep
canyon. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell
visited Moon House during a trip to meet with leaders
about the Bears Ears proposal earlier this year.
I have seen on this trip and especially here is this
incredible treasure trove of cultural resources," she
said, according to the Deseret News. "It’s beyond
imagination. I am also shocked at the lack of protection
for many of these assets."
Bears Ears proposal calls for the monument to be run by
the tribes and federal government. The Bears Ears
Coalition website, which includes the proposal given to
Obama, does not provide specifics, saying the
"collaborative management envisioned by this proposal
will involve details that are too specific to be
covered." The website says visitors will be able to
continue to visit the ruins. Messages left with Bears Ears
representatives for this story were not returned.
Anasazi built small villages in the alcoves of canyon
walls, now called "cliff dwellings." Moon House
is unique in Southwest archaeology because it has a
masonry facade, behind which stand a number of rooms. Some
of them are decorated with pictographs, such as the one
with a partial moon giving the place its name. The
enormous size and well-preserved condition of Moon House
make it a national treasure. When I got my permit to see
Moon House, a BLM ranger asked me not to enter the rooms,
which he said contained electronic sensors to alert
ruins in Cedar Mesa have no protection whatsoever, except
for small signs asking people not to enter the rooms.
Visitors are allowed to enter one of the rooms, Perfect
Kiva, a ruin in Cedar Mesa’s Bullet Canyon, where
visitors can climb into the main building.
though I had GPS coordinates for the site and directions
from a ranger, finding Perfect Kiva was no easy task, as
is often the case when looking for ruins in Cedar Mesa.
The search, however, heightens the reward when finding
top challenge is the rugged terrain of steep canyons with
primitive trails. The ruins are also often built in
elevated, inconspicuous places, which might have been the
intent of inhabitants trying to avoid detection. While
most of the Ancestral Puebloans did not live in cliff
dwellings, such settings became increasingly common and
"defense seems to be the only logical explanation for
site placement," Stephen Plog writes in his book
"Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest."
when not searching for a particular ruin, it pays to watch
the canyon walls, because many ruins are not on maps.
Binoculars help because the stonework of the ruins
typically blends in with the red rock canyons. The Anasazi
used the landscape as a central design component, with
canyon walls becoming roofs.
didn’t recognize Perfect Kiva until I saw the wood
ladder sticking out from a hole in the kiva while gazing
through my binoculars about 100 yards away. The typical
Anasazi village had several dwellings, storage rooms and a
single kiva, and that was the case here. Archaeologists
think the kivas were used for spiritual ceremonies, with
the round underground rooms often containing a small hole
where the Ancestral Puebloans came from the underworld.
down the ladder into Perfect Kiva, I noticed the hole and
felt a little uneasy. Maybe I was breaching a spiritual
code. I also wasn’t used to having this kind of access
to a ruin. I felt a sense of awe. The kiva can be entered
because it was restored by the BLM in the 1970s.
Kiva is unusual in that it has its original roof. A short
distance away sits another well-preserved site, Jailhouse
Ruin, so named because of the pieces of wood placed over a
window that mimic the bars of a cell. Jailhouse Ruin and
Perfect Kiva are two of the best-known ruins in Cedar
Mesa, and they have remained intact despite many visits.
They’re especially valuable cultural resources because
they can be experienced up close, not from behind a fence.
Bears Ears is approved, I hope that doesn’t change. As a
writer in Archaeology Southwest Magazine put it, "the
challenge is to powerfully protect that (archaeological)
record, while continuing to provide meaningful
opportunities for discovery and reflection."