by Bill Boyle
One of the first casualties of war is the truth, and there is a war being waged over the Bears Ears area in San Juan County.
As a result, even simple realities in our spectacular corner of the world are being twisted and manipulated.
Political forces on both sides of the issue seem to be more interested in getting their way than they are in discovering the truth.
As far as I am concerned, the narrative regarding the creation of Bears Ears has taken several directions that are fundamentally dishonest.
And the closer we move to a decision point on the creation of the monument, the farther away from the truth the narrative will turn.
Frankly, I am afraid that the issues have been clouded to the point that it may already be too late for people to develop an objective opinion if they are first hearing about the issue.
A case in point is a large front-page story in the June 6 Washington Post entitled “A major Native American site is being looted”.
The story, which focuses on several of the issues involved in the Bears Ears controversy, is being published far and wide.
You don’t need to go any farther than the headline of the story, which explicitly states that a major Native American site in San Juan County is being looted. That is simply not correct.
Bureau of Land Management officials report that there are no confirmed reports of artifact theft in recent weeks. In the past six months, BLM has investigated one incident in the Cedar Mesa area related to the theft of cultural resources, and several incidents of vandalism and graffitti.
Since 2011, the BLM has investigated 25 looting and vandalism incidents in the Monticello Field Office area.
Of course, any incident is unacceptable, but it is disingenuous to call everything looting.
There are many archaeological sites in San Juan County – hundreds, if not thousands. Many of these sites may be at risk from a variety of factors, ranging from the inevitable ravages of time, to the impact of careless visitation and shameful vandalism, all the way to professional criminals who are robbing artifacts.
The headline lumps all of the threats into an overt act of looting at a single major site. It is simply untrue.
During the summer of 2015, I heard a few reports about possible damage to Native American sites on both BLM and Forest Service land. Agency officials told me they were unaware of any significant problems and denied there had been any professional looting of sites.
I find it very disturbing that reports of the incidents, if they actually happened, were withheld until they were released for the optimum political timing and were reported in an unfair manner.
“It looks like maybe the headline writer didn’t read the story very well,” said Josh Ewing, who is the Executive Director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa.
Josh may be right, but the die is cast. The story was picked up far and wide and published around the world, from the Drudge Report to the Huffington Post, and everywhere in between.
The perception has been set for the vast majority of readers, who generally do not move beyond the headline.
The Friends of Cedar Mesa are pushing for protections for the archaeological treasures of the area. They state that there are very real risks to sites.
Ewing says he is aware of a site that has recently been looted in the Cedar Mesa area.
“It was systematic,” said Ewing. “An eight or nine foot professional trench dug by someone who knew where to look.”
Other examples Ewing gives include an attempt to use a rock saw to cut a petroglyph near Bluff and the collapse of an ancient wall at the Monarch Cave site in Butler Wash.
Whether it is a front page headline in the Washington Post or a flyer placed at a trading post, examples of issues being manipulated are easy to find, on both ends of the political spectrum.
Advocacy groups have swooped in on both sides, running push polls they claim accurately measures public sentiment. Once again, it is a manipulation.
Several weeks ago, I received a call at home from a pollster asking about my views on the Bears Ears issue. The pollster refused to state who was sponsoring the poll, but after about two questions, the political view of the sponsoring organization was clear to me.
Sure enough, a major poll was released several days later by an advocacy group. It claimed widespread support for the creation of a monument.
Rather than measuring true public sentiment, the poll was designed to drive public sentiment in a certain direction.
Similarly, a conservative advocacy group states that 83 percent of Utah Navajo are opposed to the creation of a monument.
The truth is that San Juan County Navajos are torn by the proposal. A significant group opposes a National Monument and another significant group supports it.
I have no idea what side has the most supporters, but I do know that an advocacy group is not the right group to determine that support.