Is San Juan County being loved to death?
By Rachel Parsons
Contributing reporters: Dan Toomey and Jordan Winters
There are many disagreements in San Juan County — political and social, cultural and ethnic, industrial and environmental. The fight over the boundary of Bears Ears National Monument is emblematic of these disputes.
But talk to more than a couple of people with divergent views on a multitude of issues and common ground begins to emerge about, well, the ground. Many voice a fear that the region’s exquisite raw beauty and immeasurable value may become a casualty of its own popularity.
Setting aside the size, or even the existence, of Bears Ears, tourism in the county has increased steadily for at least the past six years, according to the Bureau of Land Management. This increase has residents from one end of the county to the other concerned. And residents are now grappling with how to strike a balance between what could be a financial boost to local businesses and the preservation of natural and cultural resources.
“You have a lot of people that come to the area that basically love it to death,” said County librarian Nicole Perkins. “They want to chisel out what’s there and take it home with them.”
Perkins was a vocal opponent of the designation of Bears Ears, in part because of the national media’s focus on the area surrounding its creation and eventual reduction. It only drew more people to the region who don’t always know how to behave at sensitive ecological and cultural sites, she said.
Thirty-one miles south of Blanding, down Route 191, 163 and a dirt road, archeologist and backcountry guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt recently led a group into Butler Wash to see ancient rock art and dwellings.
The ground around the Puebloan structural remains is littered with potsherds, each telling a tale of history that stretches back roughly 1,000 years. Visible hoof prints and manure point to cattle that moved through the area recently.
Inside what is left of the structure walls, a couple took pictures, a woman standing on a fragile ledge, her dog in tow. Another visitor, a young man, picked up sherds as he wandered around the site. Hadenfeldt politely asked him to put them back in the same place when he was done looking. It preserved the contextual story of the pieces, he said.
Hadenfeldt has spent a lot of time thinking about how to educate visitors about proper interaction with historical sites to prevent further degradation. But it is in some respects a race to catch up to the ever-growing number of tourists.
“We’ve been seeing this immense increase in visitation every year — well before people started talking about Bears Ears monument or any of that,” Hadenfeldt said. “And all of this now is on Google and all the media so everybody knows there’s rock art and ruins here now.”
Google, GPS and geotagging has created a technological issue that grabbed the attention of antiquities dealer Rick Bell.
“Things that used to be known about but not located very easily, now that’s changed,” the longtime Bluff resident said.
Now, with a phone’s GPS and geotagging on social media, people can find the way to remote sites that, in some cases, might not have yet been catalogued by archeologists.
“Once you take a piece away from its location, you lose its context and it loses all value,” Bell said. “You really need to know what’s on top of what to know what sequence of events built this community. It’s not usually malicious, but the damage is done just the same.”
But word is out, and more people keep coming — which both men acknowledge is not necessarily a bad thing.
Economy Versus Ecology
No one denies the economic benefit to the county that comes from tourism dollars, particularly when industrial jobs in mining and extraction, the dominant 20th century economic drivers, are on the decline, according to data from Utah’s Department of Workforce Services.
In an email, Natalie Randall, director of the San Juan County Economic Development office, said the leisure and hospitality sector is the third-largest employer with travel-related sales tax revenue in the county topping $1 million in 2016, as reported by the Utah State Tax Commission.
Big growth in the recreation and travel sector is not unique to San Juan. Nationally, the outdoor recreation industry accounted for more than $373 billion in 2016, well outpacing growth in the overall economy, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports.
In a county where people like Blanding resident Janet Wilcox see their children as their number one export because of the lack of job opportunities, others see travel-related businesses as at least part of the answer.
“A lot of our children, our families work in hotels, motels, restaurants … so looking at that, that keeps our people here,” Mexican Water resident Melinda Blackhorse said.
The Cultural Cost of Growth
The challenge for jobs in the tourism sector for San Juan, in addition to seasonal fluctuations, is that pay ranges widely from minimum wage in hotel and restaurant jobs to an average of double the minimum for experienced guides and outfitters, per the Department of Workforce Services.
The challenge for the environment: every person who shows up, employees and tourists, adds to boots on the ground. The number of visitors to BLM-administered lands in the county alone rose more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2017. Last year, more than 400,000 people accessed public lands.
Hadenfeldt, who supported the creation of Bears Ears and the larger original boundary, has begun to see encroachment of visitors in areas that aren’t prepared for them.
“There are sites out there still today that have very little visitation,” he said. “People haven’t discovered them or noticed them … And every year when I’m guiding out in the backcountry I see footprints in more and more of those places.”
At one well-known site, Hadenfeldt’s group could clearly see bullet holes and signs of vandalism, and litter clung to plants.
The Navajo people also recognize signs of wear and tear in areas they know and treasure.
“We have several elderlies that are herbalists who used to go there to collect herbs,” said District 3 County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, who is of Navajo descent. “Since last spring, because of increase of tourists and people who are just curious about the area, the visitation has increased, and so they have noticed that where there were no trails, there are now trails, and they have trampled some of these herbs.”
Although opinions on the creation of Bears Ears vary widely, the overall desire is similar: responsible growth and management in visitation and development.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that we want this area to ourselves,” Monticello resident Kim Henderson said. “It’s not necessarily that we want it to ourselves, we just don’t want to see it change. I want my kids to experience the same things that I experienced growing up.”
District 1 County Commissioner Phil Lyman, an opponent of Bears Ears, wants to see a responsible growth strategy within the county. Lyman is a Blanding resident who opposes federal oversight in public lands issues, contrary to Hadenfeldt and other residents of Bluff.
“I can see we don’t want to be Moab,” he said, referring to the gateway to Arches National Park in the county to the north. “We don’t want to feel like we’re selling our souls for the tourist dollar. I want to see Blanding step fully into the tourism economy and do the best they can with it within some moderation.”
Moderation and management is the common ideological thread woven through these communities. That will take cooperation from government entities, local organizations and individuals, according to Hadenfeldt. Hadenfelt is also the co-founder of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a non-profit whose mission is to educate people about and advocate for public lands.
Some solutions he sees are straightforward.
“We need to come up with places for the, kind of the one-time casual visitor who comes to the Bears Ears National Monument,” Hadenfeldt said. “They’ve heard that there’s rock art and ruins in the area … we are kind of a backcountry area. We are not a developed place that has trails and signage and all of that.
“So we need to come up with some of those type of spots for the visitor who is probably only going to come here once, but is not very educated, doesn’t know how to respond and react when they’re within a cultural resource site.”
He supports public-private partnerships like the BLM’s Respect and Protect educational campaign which Friends of Cedar Mesa helped develop. Simple things like signs at sites like Butler Wash and Sand Island telling visitors what not to do would be a start, he said.
And many officials in San Juan County acknowledge there is balance to be found in keeping the area protected, while welcoming tourists.
“What we hope to do is to continue to drive quality tourism, rather than simply focusing on the quantity of visitors we are bringing [or] attracting to the county,” Randall wrote in an email.
Back at Butler Wash, there are not yet signs or other protective measures. But Hadenfeldt remains hopeful.
“Is it possible to love a place to death?” he theorized. “I suppose, but I don’t think this [region] is dead … I think there’s enough love here to protect this place.