The climbing in southeast Utah is some of the best in the country, beckoning rock climbers from around the world. It tests our physical and mental boundaries and provides adventure, fulfillment and personal growth. The Bears Ears area of southeast Utah is particularly important. It’s a 1.9-million-acre region north of the San Juan River and east of the Colorado River that includes Native American archeological and cultural sites and exceptional climbing such as Indian Creek, Lockhart Basin, Arch Canyon, Comb Ridge, and Valley of the Gods.
Climbers aren’t the only ones with a profound love of southeast Utah. Its sacredness runs deep. Home to more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites, the Bears Ears area is the most significant unprotected archeological area in the country. Tribal leaders and medicine people continue to conduct ceremonies, collect herbs for medicinal purposes, and practice healing rituals there. In a recent meeting with representatives from the Bears-Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the AAC and Access Fund had the opportunity to connect with them over our shared love and respect for the land.
These treasures—climbing areas and spiritual sites—may be at risk. With two land management proposals on the table, the stakes are complicated. Congressmen Bishop and Chaffetz’s Public Lands Initiative (PLI) could—among other things—open the land to resource extraction. Not good for the tribes or for climbers. Here’s where it gets tricky: if instead, the Bears Ears area becomes a national monument, cultural resources will be protected, but it’s possible that there could be new restrictions on recreational uses. We’re working with the Access Fund and the Inter-Tribal Coalition to keep climbing open in the Bears Ears region while ensuring much-needed protections for cultural resources.
Partnering with local Native American tribes is critical in protecting the breathtaking beauty of the Bears Ears area and ensuring that we can continue to enjoy its world-class climbing. On May 23rd, AAC and Access Fund joined with representative from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to discuss the proposed monument and do a fly-over with EcoFlight. We spoke about how respectful climbing practices are compatible with natural and cultural resource protection and shared information about the ways in which climbers serve as stewards of public lands. Tribal representatives explained their grave concerns about resource extraction, the proposed PLI and emphasized the lands’ sacredness. We shared our report on a joint AAC/Access Fund letter writing campaign to President Obama which captures how much climbers value southeast Utah. They were impressed and encouraged to hear that 1,135 climbers wrote in response to our call to action.
It is clear that climbers and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition share similar feelings about this area: both groups have reverence for the land and want it to be protected. We don’t support resource extraction in places with such extraordinary cultural and recreation value as Bears Ears. As policy decisions unfold, the AAC and Access Fund will continue to do everything we can to ensure that land management policies protect Native American cultural and archaeological sites while recognizing climbing as an appropriate activity in southeast Utah.