The December 4 executive order by President Donald Trump to rescind Bears Ears National Monument and create two smaller monuments may trigger significant changes for a Bluff-based nonprofit organization.
Friends of Cedar Mesa (FCM) took two actions in the past week, including filing a lawsuit in federal court against the recent changes in the monument and starting a fundraising effort to create a private “visitor center” in Bluff.
Friends of Cedar Mesa has evolved over time since it was created by a former Bureau of Land Management employee, Mark Meloy, in 2010.
The organization began as a traditional “friends” organization, working with the federal agencies to provide assistance in the management of public lands.
Through the process that resulted in the creation of Bears Ears National Monument, the organization began to not just assist the agencies, but to advocate for land policy positions. They became a vocal advocate for the creation of the monument.
With the filing of the federal lawsuit against the Trump Administration, the organization may be moving toward an adversarial relationship with the federal government and the federal agencies.
Friends of Cedar Mesa is one of eight organizations to file a lawsuit representing Native American and conservation interests. The lawsuit was filed in the federal district court in Washington, D.C.
Other organizations involved in the lawsuit include Utah Diné Bikéyah, Patagonia Works, Conservation Lands Foundation, and others.
While Utah Diné Bikéyah is governed by a board made up of San Juan County residents, the organization headquarters are in Salt Lake City.
Friends of Cedar Mesa is the only local organization to file a lawsuit against Trump’s actions.
Josh Ewing, executive director of FCM, explained the decision to file the lawsuit, “We will utilize all tools available to protect this landscape.”
Because visitation to public lands in San Juan County is on the rise, Friends of Cedar Mesa started fundraising efforts in the past week for a new “Bears Ears Visit with Respect Education Center.”
The project is designed to help teach visitors proper guidelines for visiting archaeological sites.
A promotional pamphlet for the effort says, “Bears Ears is not a playground, and special care is needed, beyond basic Leave No Trace principles, to preserve such a sensitive cultural landscape.”
FCM board president Vaughn Hadenfeldt said the Education Center is “a location where good information can be disseminated to people visiting Bears Ears.”
“There is so much uncertainty around the monument right now, and we don’t know when a traditional visitor center might be built,” he said. “So this is one of the first times, I think, when a bunch of private people have stepped up and said, ‘What can we do?’”
Over the last several years, FCM has developed a set of Visit with Respect educational tools for exploring cultural sites. They’ve also created a Visit with Respect ambassador program, which trains volunteers to meet the public in the field and share tips for safe visiting with them.
Hadenfeldt said the Education Center is meant to work in conjunction with Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service efforts to distribute visitor information.
“We want to have a good working relationship and partnership with the government agencies who are in charge of taking care of and protecting these places,” he said. “We hope to fill in some of the gaps that they might not be able to address at the moment, whether it’s from a lack of funding or staff.”
Josh Ewing explained that the visitor center effort is entirely independent of the federal agencies.
FCM hopes to raise $840,000 over six months to purchase a building in Bluff, hire Education Center staff for the first three years, and to purchase an adjacent building that will be converted into office space for the Bears Ears Commission.
In addition to the Education Center, the building will provide offices for FCM staff and an event space.
A Kickstarter drive, which runs through the end of December, brought in $171,000 in the first two weeks. An additional $267,000 has been raised through FCM’s website and elsewhere, bringing the total to $438,000.
The Kickstarter campaign came under fire recently for offering a “secret” Bears Ears hike to those who donate $10,000 or more. Questions were asked whether or not soliciting donations in this way is ethical.
In response, FCM issued a clarification statement that says, “It was a mistake to use the word ‘secret’... No truly sensitive archaeological sites (e.g. with important in-situ artifacts) will be visited.”
On December 12, the Kickstarter site said the reward for a $10,000 donation is “no longer available.”
Bluff, which has billed itself on yard signs around town as the “proud gateway to Bears Ears,” is the perfect location for the Education Center, according to Hadenfeldt.
“We’re kind of the hiking community, and long-time visitors tend to have cultural resources as their concern and passion,” he said.