More than 700 archaeologists have signed a letter urging President Obama to protect the Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah.
A coalition of five tribal nations has proposed a 1.9 million-acre national monument to protect Bears Ears. The nations are the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah and Ouray Ute and Zuni.
“All these groups continue to see this area as important because; one, ancestors are buried there; two, it’s part of their history; three, they may visit the area to visit shrines, special places, and to collect medicinal herbs and plants that are important in religious ceremonies,” said Bill Lipe, a professor emeritus at Washington State University.
Lipe has researched the archaeology of southeastern Utah for more than 50 years, and is one of more than 700 archaeologists who signed a letter urging Obama to protect Bears Ears.
The letter was written by the Friends of Cedar Mesa, an organization that seeks to protect public lands in San Juan County. Josh Ewing, executive director of the organization, said the area is home to more than 100,000 archaeological sites, including well-preserved cliff dwellings, rock and art panels, artifacts and Native American burials.
“Cedar Mesa in particular, which is the central component of Bears Ears, was a formative place in the history of archeology, where the basketmaker culture was discovered,” Ewing said. “So it’s been very important to the history of the science of archeology. Archaeologists have been advocating for the protection of these cultural resources for 113 years now.”
The letter also raises concerns about looting, grave robbing and other archaeological site damage. The Bureau of Land Management has documented 26 incidents of cultural resource damage since 2011 in San Juan County, and Lipe says the vandalism has been ongoing for decades. Ewing says the archaeologists hope this letter will persuade congress to protect the Bears Ears archaeological sites and the cultural significance of the area.
“All too often in the debate about Bears Ears, it becomes more about the politics,” Ewing said. “It becomes more about cowboys versus Indians, republicans versus democrats, when really it should be about American history being preserved.”