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Bears Ears Could See Record Visitation This Year. Advocates Say That Puts Cultural Sites In Danger.

A sandstone cliff dwelling in an alcove is visible from across a canyon.
Elaine Clark
/
KUER
Moon House is an archaeological site on Cedar Mesa. It is the only site in Bears Ears National Monument that requires a permit.

This year is shaping up to be one of the busiest ever for visitation in and around Bears Ears National Monument, according to advocates who say tourism is wreaking havoc on the fragile landscape.

Tourism in the area has been increasing for over a decade, said Josh Ewing. He’s the executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit group that works to protect archaeological sites in and around Bears Ears.

“With the advent of social media, and in particular photo sites like Instagram, we started seeing visitation increase significantly,” Ewing said “We estimated that there was a huge increase, maybe as much as a 300% increase, just between 2010 and 2015.”

Statistics from the Bureau of Land Management show around 224,000 people visited the monument in 2019, while 225,000 visited the area outside the monument in San Juan County. Visitation dipped in 2020, likely due to the pandemic, but Ewing said his group expects it to be back up around half a million visitors this year.

“Everything we’re seeing on the ground suggests we’ve never seen this many people before,” he added.

Ideally, he said, the Bureau of Land Management would direct visitors to certain developed archaeological sites, where they could learn about the area’s history and cultural resources. But that’s not happening for a number of reasons, according to Ewing, who said the internet is picking up the slack.

“Bears Ears is being managed by Google,” he said. “Because that’s where people get their info.”

That’s a problem, according to Vaughn Hadenfeldt, a retired backpacking guide who helped start Friends of Cedar Mesa. He said without proper education, visitors end up doing things that destroy cultural sites, like picking up pottery shards and other artifacts.

“I've seen some sites around here that in just the last year, maybe two years, it's like somebody took a vacuum cleaner and just took everything away,” he said. “It’s quite dramatic.”

The Bureau of Land Management said it has increased staffing to help manage visitation since the monument was created. It has also partnered with Friends of Cedar Mesa to add educational signage at a number of sites, as well as port-a-potties along Butler Wash Road. It also developed a stewardship program to provide site monitoring and visitor education.

Still, Hadenfeldt said, that isn’t enough. He suggested it may be time to consider a permit system, similar to the Grand Canyon, to handle the increased tourism. Currently only one site in the area, Moon House, requires a permit. Overnight backpacking also requires a permit at certain times of year.

Those are the types of decisions that could be part of a management plan for the monument. The Bureau released one last year, after the Trump administration shrunk the monument in 2017, but it will likely be replaced if the Biden administration restores the monument to its original size. Hadenfeldt said it’s also important Native American tribes have a say in that process.

“We need to look at what's important to them and come up with a management plan,” he said. “It's a big job, and I'm hoping that we can get there sooner [rather] than later.”

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