05.1.13

Cedar Mesa Paradox

Guest blog from Mark Meloy, Executive Director, Friends of Cedar Mesa

I’m in Bluff thinking about the state of Cedar Mesa and how Friends of Cedar Mesa fits into future management and preservation. I’m trying to think positively, but it’s a brown-out day. The air is gusting thick brown clouds of dust from Monument Valley. The snowfields in the La Plata Mountains of Colorado take on the red hues of desert sand in the aftermath of days like today. We’re lucky to have had only two such events so far this spring and this lousy dust storm confines me to my desk where I am finding it difficult to think positive thoughts.

Our Utah politicians come to mind. Seems like everything I’m for they’re against. Federal Land, the Antiquities Act, even the very idea of a National Conservation Area for Cedar Mesa seems to be dismissed without much chance for discussion. The word paradox comes to mind, as I think about it. These politicians don’t want the president to use his power to designate a national monument because it short circuits the local political processes. Yet the local politicians make it quite clear from the outset that they won’t support any further designations. What good are local political processes if the decision-makers have already made up their minds?

My thoughts are interrupted by the ping of a new email. The travel section of the Washington Post has an article about the thrill of discovery on Cedar Mesa.

“’Check this out,’ I said, holding up a potsherd painted with a grid and stripes. We were like enthralled children, intent on our discoveries. I wondered what kind of life belonged to the hand that had painted these designs, whether out of devotion or boredom, I’m not sure. Certainly, other visitors had been here, but there was remarkably little evidence of them. The hikers who discover this site seem to share an unspoken respect for its sacredness, leaving its potsherds where they found them for future travelers. I sifted through the sand, finding charcoal from old fires and tiny eaten corncobs. It felt as if I were standing among ghosts.”

At one point the author is extolling the sacredness of discovery but then cannot resist but to dig and sift just like any other looter of archaeological sites. Paradox plain and simple. As the news of little visited sites continue to pervade the media and internet those sites lose their artifacts and the very reason people are attracted to the sites. In fact, all the popularized sites within a day’s hike of a trailhead or road have lost all their artifacts. Hard to believe, but true. If you haven’t visited that favorite spot on Cedar Mesa for a while, prepare yourself. You will still experience the beautiful old growth forest, the lovely cliff dwellings and ruins, the satiating solitude, but don’t expect to see many artifacts.

My weather born rant continues. There are lots of good rules and advice offered by the rangers at Kane Gulch. Listen up to learn about low impact visitation and don’t step on the cryptobiotic soils. Also don’t drink the water. In a drought year like this cattle crowd into the narrow draws in search of water. They poop in the potholes and shade up in the ruins. You be careful not to leave any trace but let the cows do what ever they want. Another huge paradox and cultural injustice. A few years ago my friend’s dog drank from a water hole heavily used by cattle. The dog nearly died of the bacterial leavings of manure in that water.

The BLM has lots of regulations on Cedar Mesa but provides little of its vast resources to law enforcement and education. There is one good law enforcement ranger for the vast area of San Juan County south of Monticello, Utah. He is not always on the job. He has a life. He has training requirements that take him away. He gets weekends off and vacations. Some of the time there is no law enforcement ranger for Cedar Mesa. Even things like car break ins, much less pot hunting, go uninvestigated.

With so-called “sequestration” of the Federal Government, the sieve of public financing becomes even finer and almost nothing drops out the bottom for on the ground education and enforcement. The rangers on Cedar Mesa have no seasonal ranger help this spring and must rely on volunteers for patrols and visitor center activities. The apparent lack of even travel money keeps them from monitoring sites requiring overnight hikes.

Despite its problems and paradoxes the environs of Greater Cedar Mesa continue to attract huge numbers of visitors from all over the world. Those people support our burgeoning tourist economy. Paradox: We want those people to come and yet we do almost nothing to make certain the resources stay sustainable. In essence we are currently mining the finite cultural resources of San Juan County, Utah. The hordes come and the artifacts disappear. Silent canyons of great beauty remain, but the magic of discovery, a stone tool or intricately painted pot sherd, are gone. The solid stone walls of a thousand year old ruin are marvelous, but are scoured of the material of daily life.

We clearly need to elevate the prominence and importance of Cedar Mesa on a national scale. We need a Greater Cedar Mesa national monument or conservation area. Paradox: more visitors and more disturbance. Right now I’m not sure how else to convince the government to provide the funding and management needed to preserve what’s left. But I’ll come up with some more positive ideas on a less windy day.

Posted by Danielle Murray in Blog & Videos, Friends of Cedar Mesa