BLUFF, Utah — Chop saws buzzed as volunteers painted the bathrooms Monday inside the old Silver Dollar Bar, giving the historic town watering hole on the edge of what was until recently Bears Ears National Monument a welcome makeover.
The idea behind the renovation isn’t to lure the increasing number of dusty tourists here to get a glimpse of the stunning red rocks and canyonlands that have become a political battleground. They’ll have to look elsewhere to slake their thirst or visit the bygone haunts of uranium miners.
Instead, the goal of the new Bears Ears Education Center is to serve up what its organizers say the federal government has neglected to provide — a way to teach the public about protecting the precious but sensitive cultural history in this archaeologically rich and remote part of southeast Utah.
The grassroots interpretation center, opening on September 22, aims to meet the dramatic increase in demand and attention on the monument — designated by President Obama and reduced by President Trump — as legal limbo has left this swath of land without a coherent management plan.
“We’ve seen walls knocked down. We’ve seen 2,000 year old rock art scribbled on,” said Josh Ewing, the executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, the group behind the project.
The Trump administration’s efforts to roll back the monument, from the 1.35 million acres originally protected by Obama in late 2016, was controversial. However organizers say the education center’s emphasis on respectful visitation has not ruffled any feathers. And that says a lot compared to ongoing debates about how big the monument should or shouldn’t be.
Planned displays include a series of pottery sherds that were stolen and returned to the Bureau of Land Management, a paleontology exhibit, a library and a virtual reality demonstration of an archaeological site.
It's happening alongside other big changes in this quiet town of just a few hundred residents. Bluff incorporated as a town on August 31. The 54-unit Bluff Dwellings Resort is slated to open in 2019 at the north end of town.
The education center is being funded through a crowdfunding campaign and contributions from outdoor industry companies such as The North Face.
“I think it’s a really positive force that the community, as you can see, is active in,” said Bluff resident Linda Sosa who also sits on the board of Friends of Cedar Mesa. “I’m excited about it as a member of the town and someone on the town council.”