No national monument has ever seen more controversy or resulting news coverage than Bears Ears.
All that publicity is spurring a visitor-education crisis, with skyrocketing numbers of tourists threatening sensitive archaeological sites and the Monument’s jaw-droppingly beautiful but fragile desert environment.
Due to a Proclamation from President Donald Trump that reduced the size of the Monument by 85%, which is now being challenged in court, government resources and dexterity to address visitor management issues in a timely way are limited.
Friends of Cedar Mesa (FCM), a local conservation group based in Bluff, isn’t letting political and legal disagreements stop it from taking action to protect resources on the ground.
“This is a ‘We the People’ moment for America’s most archaeologically rich national monument,” said Josh Ewing, FCM’s Executive Director.
“I haven’t met anyone who wants to see this internationally significant area get loved to death, but that’s what will happen if we wait years for the legal limbo to resolve, hoping the government will solve all our problems.”
The Bears Ears Education Center will open September 22 in this newly incorporated town that bills itself as the “Gateway to Bears Ears.”
The ambitious project brings new life to the old Silver Dollar Bar, which catered to uranium miners, oil drillers, and the occasional tourist in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
The Center will initially open in a somewhat bare-bones fashion, while fundraising continues toward the project’s overall budget of nearly $1 million.
“It’s been nine months of hard work by our staff and volunteers, but we just couldn’t let another busy visitor season go by while we tried to make things perfect,” said Ewing.
More than 3,000 individual donors from around the US have supported the project, which has also seen significant donations from a number of outdoor industry brands and charitable foundations, such as the Lewis Family Foundation, the Kendeda Fund, and the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation.
“Regardless of politics, we can all agree a place like Bears Ears should be visited with respect,” said Eric Raymond, senior advocacy manager at The North Face, the Center’s largest donor.
“We support Bears Ears for its importance to our public lands system, local outdoor recreation economies, and its significance to the past and future of the Native American tribes that came together for its protection.”
The Bears Ears Education Center aims to equip hikers, backpackers, paddlers, climbers and other recreational users with tips about how to #VisitwithRespect.
Local volunteers will also advise visitors on how to experience the beauty of the area without impacting sensitive sites that aren’t ready to handle mass visitation.
The Center will feature numerous educational exhibits, navigational maps, a resource library, conference room, and a small retail store where visitors can purchase clothing, memorabilia, books and basic equipment for visiting the area respectfully.
An “educational park” with a native plant garden, picnic tables, shade, fire pit, and a small amphitheater for educational talks will be created at the Center later this fall.
A virtual reality experience, paleontology exhibit, and solar power installation are in the works for 2019.
“We are so grateful for all those who have supported this project from near and far,” said FCM Board President Vaughn Hadenfeldt, who runs a Bluff-based guiding company called Far Out Expeditions.
“Bears Ears is not a playground. While this is now public land, we should remember that this area was used and cared for by native people for millennia, and their descendants view this land as sacred.
“Utmost respect and light steps should be used when visiting this living cultural landscape.”
The Bears Ears Education Center will open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Monday.
The Center will close December 1 for the winter season and reopen for Celebrate Cedar Mesa Weekend, which starts March 1.