In southeastern Utah, set among Martian landscapes of red sandstone canyons and forested buttes, stand two endearingly stumpy mounds. The formations, aptly called Bears Ears for their cartoonish similarity to their namesake, occupy an infinitesimal fraction of the land once populated by Native tribes of the Southwest, including the Navajo, Pueblo, Hopi, Ute Indian, and Ute Mountain Ute.
Known collectively as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the tribes successfully lobbied then-President Barack Obama to designate 1.35 million acres of Bears Ears-adjacent land a national monument in 2016, a relatively small stretch compared to the 230 million acres of beloved geological wonders already protected under the Antiquities Act, like the Grand Canyon and Mount Olympus. The Bears Ears monument is home to some 100,000 archaeological sites, ranging from thousand-year-old petroglyphs to preserved cliff dwellings—large swaths of which sit atop coveted deposits of tar sands, uranium, potash, oil, and gas.
Two years after he created the Antiquities Act, Teddy Roosevelt told the 1908 Conference of Governors that, while America had 'become great [because] of the lavish use of our resources," it was "ominously evident" we were rapidly exhausting those resources. It was a plea for leaders to recognize the natural, cultural, and historical value of our lands, and to use judiciously those resources that remain. Almost exactly 110 years later, President Donald Trump called such efforts to reduce toxic energy consumption "stupid."
Last December, Trump told Utahns he would shrink the Bears Ears monument by 85 percent. Natural resources, he said, should not "be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats." Those in the state government who supported the reduction practically salivated while speculating about the region's energy-production potential. Barring a successful legal challenge, the resource-oglers could get their wish: thousands of acres of artifacts silent beneath the weight of a whining oil rig. Two thousand feet above the extraction, the buttes will stand, listening to the cadence of human life, as they have for the last 14,000 years.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine. It was first published online on May 3rd, 2018, exclusively for PS Premium members.