Protecting Bears Ears National Monument: Stone Work to Policy Work

The greater Bears Ears National Monument region in southeast Utah is one of the most superlative landscapes in the country. The whole region is a living testament to thousands of years of Indigenous history and culture that thrives to this day. It contains snow capped peaks and red rock canyonlands, incredible biological diversity, and is home to the best crack climbing in the world.

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, ancestral lands of Ute and Pueblo. © James Q Martin

Access Fund has been working for more than 20 years to make sure this landscape is protected—from trail work to helping craft management plans to suing the Trump Administration over its decision to slash Bears Ears National Monument by nearly 85%. Our vision is that current and future generations of climbers will enjoy sustainable access to this incredible landscape and develop a deep appreciation for its truly unique cultural and ecological values.

A Shared Love and Interest to Protect Bears Ears

As with so many other special places, Bears Ears National Monument has faced many threats in recent years. The monument rollback has reduced resources for the protection of Indigenous archaeological and cultural sites, and opened up huge swathes of sensitive land to oil and gas drilling.

There are a diverse group of stakeholders who all have an interest in how this land is managed: Tribes, climbers, mountain bikers, hunters, OHV users, conservation groups, ranchers, the oil and gas industry, and the mining industry, to name just a few. These stakeholders coalesce around the region, sometimes working together and sometimes at odds with one another. It’s near impossible to satisfy all of these interests at once, especially when some want to protect the landscape and some want to develop it. This results in a complex balancing act of priorities and policies, many of which shift with each change in administration in Washington, D.C.

However, we have learned that a core group of stakeholders in the region share many of the same values, regardless of whether we think of ourselves as climbers, or conservationists, or tribal members and advocates.

“All the stakeholders that want to protect Bears Ears have a shared interest in protecting Indigenous sacred and cultural sites and mitigating the impacts from extractive industries,” says Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter. “It’s been hugely important to collaborate with and take our lead from the tribes, and it’s clear that we share many common values and hopes for the long-term conservation and management of Bears Ears.”

It’s been hugely important to collaborate with and take our lead from the tribes, and it’s clear that we share many common values and hopes for the long-term conservation and management of Bears Ears.

How Climbers Can Help Protect Indian Creek, Part of Bears Ears

Indian Creek has also grappled with overcrowding, human waste issues, and impacts to the landscape itself, such as erosion. Unfortunately, many of these issues are a result of our own community’s love for climbing at Indian Creek.

“Climbers need to lead the way in taking care of the places where we are having the most impact,” says Winter. “Ultimately, we believe that climbing and other forms of outdoor recreation can fit in with the cultural, historical, and ecological values of Bears Ears and the Creek, but we must be deliberate in how we manage recreation and its impacts to achieve this balance."

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"Tribes and climbers share similar environmental values that inform the management of land and relationships to it," says Aaron Mike, Access Fund Native Lands Coordinator and member of the Navajo Nation. "Tribes and many climbers have developed a sense of identity based on the land. The sacredness and value of the land translates into a deep connection to place for both groups. It is because of this connection that tribes and climbers have developed shared environmental values that prioritize stewardship and sustainability."

Two ways that climbers can help protect the Bears Ears National Monument landscape is by reducing their own impacts and volunteering. Access Fund’s Conservation Teams have spent thousands of hours on the ground, completing stewardship projects that mitigate climber impacts at Indian Creek.

Volunteers give the Conservation Team a hand on the restoration and rebuild of the Scarface approach trail at Indian Creek.

“We've been working in the Creek for over a decade,” says Access Fund Stewardship Director Ty Tyler. “Our focus is on creating sustainable access and approach routes. This is a labor-intensive, high skill process. We’re talking massive stone staircases, stone retaining walls—turning sandy gully approaches into stone masterpieces that will protect the landscape from erosion and last for generations.”

To date, Access Fund has been able to complete these projects by getting one-off approvals from land managers, but a pending environmental assessment is expected to vastly expand permission to work at multiple Indian Creek walls over the next several years. Access Fund has already secured funding for some of these proposed projects, and the work will be a joint effort between the Access Fund-Jeep Conservation Teams and Indigenous crews from the Ancestral Lands program of Conservation Legacy.

As skilled as the Access Fund-Jeep Conservation Teams are, these sorts of large-scale sustainability projects need lots of hands—and climbers need to step up.

Indian Creek is a challenging place to get folks to volunteer. Many people are there to climb on their vacations, so they’re less likely to pitch in. We’d love to see climbers use a few hours on their rest days to come help out.

“Volunteers are critical,” says Tyler. “Indian Creek is a challenging place to get folks to volunteer. Many people are there to climb on their vacations, so they’re less likely to pitch in. We’d love to see climbers use a few hours on their rest days to come help out, or even build a day of stewardship into their trip.”

Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland's Impact on Bears Ears National Monument

Reflecting on the road ahead, Tyler is also keen to focus on education and collaboration, in addition to the on-the-ground stewardship work.

“We’re working to start a Climber Stewards program, so that climbers can educate their own community on how to care for and protect Indian Creek. It’s critical that climbers understand how to recreate sustainably in a landscape with so many sacred sites and ecologically sensitive areas.”

With Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s recent visit to Bears Ears, change at the policy level is almost certain for the region. While restored monument designations are likely, the specifics of what they will look like are still coming into focus. And with over a century of struggle over land protection in southeastern Utah, renewed protections will almost certainly not be the end of the story for Bears Ears.

Access Fund will be leading a visioning process, alongside a range of stakeholders, to identify immediate stewardship needs, long-term management needs, and to outline the actions that the climbing community can take to protect this special landscape.

“Bears Ears and Indian Creek are such central places—for the tribal community, for climbers, and from an ecological perspective,” reflects Winter. “So many stories and pieces of history are tied up in the canyon country. It’s a gift that we get to experience this landscape, and we have a responsibility as a community to do what we can to protect it for generations to come.”

The work to protect Bears Ears and Indian Creek is made possible by strong partnerships with a long list of fantastic organizations, including the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, Friends of Indian Creek, the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, Boulder Climbing Community, The Nature Conservancy, local students from Montrose High School, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Ancestral Lands program of Conservation Legacy.