Bears Ears Might Finally Have a Much-Needed Visitors Center
Bears Ears National Monument has become a focal point in the debate over public lands under the Trump administration. Protected by executive order in the last months of Obama’s presidency, it became a representative example for both sides of the debate: for those who would see federal protections of land dismantled for the sake of development, the sweeping protection of more than 1.35 million acres of public land looks like governmental overreach. For those who broadly support public land protections, the protection of Bears Ears—with its spiritual and historical sites, world-class climbing, and fragile environment—was long overdue, and is an example of public lands done (mostly) right. Bears Ears might finally have a much needed visitors center.
One such group, Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit based in Bluff, Utah, that advocates for public lands in the area, fought alongside Native American tribes, archaeologists, activists, and conservation organizations for the protection of Bears Ears for years. Now, they’re faced with the task of ensuring it remains protected—and, while they’re at it, maintaining good stewardship of the monument. At the moment, stewardship comes in the form of a visitors center. The monument lacks any sort of educational community space, and, in the current political climate, there’s no chance the government will be funding one anytime soon.
Bears Ears Might Finally Have a Much-Needed Visitors Center
The desert ecosystem in Bears Ears is fragile, and even experienced outdoors people might not know best practices—from how best to dispose of human waste in the desert to the right kind of climbing chalk to use. Perhaps most importantly, Bears Ears is rich with archaeologically significant sites and artifacts, something visitors may not know how to navigate without damaging—whether intentionally or unwittingly. Visits to Bears Ears have increased exponentially in recent years, while resources to preempt damage in the form of education or to restore damaged areas have remained the same.
“It doesn’t even really matter what you think about the monument, how big it should be or anything. If we care about this place, we need visitors to be educated and visit responsibly. And visitation is skyrocketing, with no more government resources to deal with the problem. It’s up to ‘we the people’ to step up our game,” says Josh Ewing, the executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa. “This is not going to be some fancy Park Service facility. The vision is for it to be a grassroots effort, driven by our local community and powered by volunteers. It’ll be a bit eccentric…but hopefully more down-to-earth and fun than your standard visitor center. We are hopeful a future administration will invest in a permanent and official visitor center for the monument, but we think that’s at least five to ten years away from happening.”
Friends of Cedar Mesa have identified a shuttered bar in downtown Bluff, Utah, as the site for the future visitors center. In the 1960s and ’70s, it primarily served uranium miners and oil field workers. Its transformation into an educational community resource for protected lands is fitting, as the town and surrounding area have shifted from a primarily resource-extraction economy into one that draws heavily on the surrounding lands for recreation and tourism.
“The place has good bones and a nice large open room that’s perfect for exhibits and visitor information. The old bar is the perfect ‘counter’ for having conversations over. It’s right on the main highway (191) through Bluff, which is the proud ‘Gateway to Bears Ears,’” Ewing says. “The primary goal is to provide as many visitors as possible with a friendly experience where we can answer their questions and help them recreate responsibly while on their trip. The dream of what our…center will offer may be different from reality, which will be largely dictated by how much funding we can raise.”
Ewing laid out the ideal scenario: There would be an exhibit developed by Native American partners explaining “why this area is sacred to the native tribes and why it’s imperative for visitors to use utmost care when recreating on these ancestral lands,” an exhibit explaining how to visit with respect and preserve archaeological resources, resources to help people plan their trip, wifi, a picnic area, a retail space, office space for Friends of Cedar Mesa, and temporary offices for the Bears Ears Tribal Commission team. The price tag? Over the next three years, Friends of Cedar Mesa expects to invest $840,000 in renovating and prepping the center.
Friends of Cedar Mesa already have the property under contract, but they need to raise $300,000 before the end of the year to secure the property. They’re raising money in conjunction with creative agency Duct Tape Then Beer, which started an online fundraiser last week (it’s already raised $40,000 of its $100,000 goal), and other outdoor brands including The North Face, Chaco, Osprey, Outdoor Research, Arc’teryx, Peak Design, IDeology, Black Diamond, KEEN, Seattle, Austin, & Minneapolis Bouldering Project, Conservation Alliance, MSR, and Therm-A-Rest have committed to helping.
The plan at the moment is to open the center as soon as possible, running it bare-bones and remodeling and adding exhibits and amenities as money comes in through donations and fundraising efforts. Friends of Cedar Mesa hopes to start providing visitor information by this spring—the busiest tourist season. Though the center will be run by the nonprofit, they’ve been in touch with the Bureau of Land Management and are collaborating with them to determine the best information to share with visitors.
“There are three kinds of people in this world: people who don’t pay attention or sit on the sidelines for whatever reason, people who complain, and people who take action. From where I stand, this project is a chance for people to get off the sidelines, not just complain about the way things are headed, and do something positive and proactive,” Ewing says.
Photo by Jeremiah Watt, courtesy of Duct Tape Then Beer.
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