BLUFF, Utah — Want to climb sheer cliffs at Indian Creek, raft the San Juan River, explore Comb Ridge, ski the Abajos, jeep into Arch Canyon, or backpack Grand Gulch to visit ancient ruins?
Apparently a lot of people do. But the recreation mecca of southeast Utah is at risk of being overrun. And some believe creating the 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument is the answer for improved management.
Friends of Cedar Mesa are advocating for such a solution, which would require President Barack Obama to designate a national monument under the Antiquities Act to further protect ruins and fragile desert. There are an estimated 56,000 archaeology sites at Cedar Mesa.
During a conference in Bluff last month, a panel of outfitters weighed in on the proposed monument.
Dallin Tait, of Four Corners Adventures, said a monument runs the risk of increasing the area’s popularity.
“It will bring more and more people, so education becomes very important,” he said. “A lot of visitors do not know what they are doing. They want to see the ruins but don’t understand the etiquette: not to climb on them, not to disturb artifacts, and don’t touch the rock art. So as a business, before the tour we heavily focus on education and respect of the land.”
Local businesses such as Opsrey Packs in Cortez, and Deer Hill Expeditions in Mancos, also depend on the wildlands of southeast Utah for their businesses.
“Public lands are our lifeblood because that is where users of our gear go,” said Sam Mix, corporate outreach for Osprey. “The Leave No Trace principle is our guiding light, and the information is put in the pockets of our packs. Teaching outdoor ethics is the obligation of every outdoor company.”
Deer Hill Expeditions provides educational tours for city kids. Base camp manager John Palmer said introducing youth to wilderness settings is a critical learning moment the company takes seriously.
“Exposing them to such a beautiful area comes with responsibility to educate,” he said. “We connect them with these places on a human and environmental level.”
When city kids see an ancient ruin for the first time in Grand Gulch, or along the San Juan River, they’re taught its cultural significance to today’s Native American tribes, a lesson they hopeful will take home and pass on.
“We rely on these wild areas, and if they don’t survive, there goes our business,” Palmer said.
BLM ‘handcuffed’A big challenge is lack of funding for the local National Park Service and BLM agencies managing the area.
“If you want to prove the BLM is incompetent, bleed them to death,” said Jason Keith, a climbing guide and member of Friends of Indian Creek. “We need more funding support for the BLM, they are handcuffed and don’t have enough of a presence in areas being overrun.”
Improved funding for way signing is one solution, says Josh Ewing, director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, and would limit the overall footprint to the sensitive area.
“When visitors come, right now it’s unclear where to go,” he said. “Directing them through a signed loop with more established campgrounds and educational kiosks is what they are looking for.”
Another solution is to require all visitors to Cedar Mesa to watch a video of Leave No Trace ethics and proper etiquette around Native American sites and artifacts. Watching the videos is already required for hikers and backpackers at Grand Gulch.
Controlling human nature is tricky, Ewing said, and requires specialty training.
Friends of Cedar Mesa is hosting seminars for site stewards and volunteers on how to interact with visitors violating the rules.
“Yelling and screaming at a family who is climbing on ruins is not the right approach,” he said. “How you handle that situation is key to getting the positive message out on how to enjoy the area while protecting it at the same time.”
The BLM recently approved new rules for Cedar Mesa that prohibits camping on archeology sites, and bans the use of ropes or climbing aid to access sites.
Use increasingVisitation numbers in the area proposed for the Bears Ear’s National Monument are limited, and are just estimates.
The BLM shows in 2015 there were 65,209 visitors to the Cedar Mesa Special Recreation Management area, which includes Cedar Mesa canyons, Butler Wash, and Comb Wash areas. In 2014, there were 74,701 visitors.
Friends of Cedar Mesa estimates there were 150,000 visitor days in 2015 for the Cedar Mesa and Comb ridge areas.
By comparison, visitation to the Cedar Mesa area in 1974 was 2,800 people. By 1995 it had increased to more than 50,000 hikers and backpackers.
Meanwhile, about 10,500 boaters float the San Juan River every year. Day-use and overnight permits for Grand Gulch totaled 17,260 in 2003. In 1979, there were 13,000 recorded visitor days to the canyon.