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Locals Creating Bears Ears Visitors Center While Fight Over Boundaries Continues

Josh Ewing/Friends of Cedar Mesa
Many visitors aren't familar with ways to avoid damaging places like this ancient dwellings in the canyons near the Bears Ears buttes. A new education center is aimed at helping to educate them.

A new education center is taking shape to protect the rich cultural resources around the Bears Ears in southeastern Utah.

The reasons behind its genesis are well known.

The challenge of safeguarding the natural and archaeological sites around Bears Ears had been obvious for a long time.

“There’s greater visibility,” said Sally Jewell, who was Interior Secretary in 2016 and visited the area two summers ago. “And, you know, for all the blessings of the Internet and all the blessings of GPS,' it has driven more traffic to some of these areas. So, we are facing this - a bit of a dilemma.”

The concern about visitor impacts was part of what prompted former president Barack Obama to create the national monument on 1.35 million acres one years ago this week.

The Trump administration also recognizes the importance of helping people understand why the area is treasured. Ryan Zinke, who’s Interior Secretary now, has also talked about sites being overrun.

“Bears Ears is on the map,” Zinke said last spring when he toured the area.

“We want the cultural part to be protected in perpetuity.”

Trump administration dramatically reduced the monument’s boundaries a few weeks ago. And the fight over that move is expected to be debated in court for months - or even years. But the immediate threat remains to the cliff dwellings and cultural sites and areas that are sacred to tribes because the flood of visitors.

“They're not going to just go to the [shrunken ] monument that President Trump created,” said Josh Ewing, who leads the local conservation group, Friends of Cedar Mesa. “So, as a result, we're feeling the desperate need to have some good visitor education that will help people know how to visit archaeological sites in a respectful way and not damage them.”

That’s the impetus behind creating the new Bears Ears Education Center in Bluff, Utah.

A building that used to be a favorite bar for uranium miners will house the new center. The group has a goal of more than $800,000 for the property, renovations and exhibits. It’s funding campaign ends with the new year.

I think we need to have more of that in America, more of that in Utah,” said Ewing, “projects that are positive and proactive that you can support regardless of where you are on the political spectrum.”

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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