Inside the New Battle for the American West

Deep in a box canyon in Utah, in the heart of the fractured land known as Bears Ears National Monument, there is a cave—a swooping, mineral-streaked alcove in a sandstone cliff.

In December 1893 a rancher-explorer named Richard Wetherill pushed his way through dense reeds and discovered inside that alcove a stacked-stone ruin where a prehistoric group of Native Americans once lived. He named the site Cave Seven. Some would later condemn him as a vandal and a looter—but Cave Seven proved to be one of the most important finds in the archaeology of the American Southwest.

It’s easier to get there today than it was in Wetherill’s era, but it’s not easy. You bump along a dirt road that twists long miles through arroyos and canyons, past jagged crags and sandstone domes. Then you are on foot. You clamber through a dry watercourse clogged with bitterbrush and poison ivy; you sidle along a rock ledge.

Look up: A dissolving jet contrail is the only sign of the time in which we live. Look down: What seem like stones at your feet are in fact remnants of cooking vessels. Such relics are everywhere, if you know how to look: A saltbush-covered mound conceals a ceremonial kiva; a subtle line in the earth marks a road connecting ancient villages. All around is evidence of things made, laid, and lived in centuries ago.

Bears Ears National Monument is now a battleground in another collision of cultures. Across the American West, from the desert canyons of Utah to the towering conifers of the Pacific Northwest, and in the mountains and sagebrush basins between, Americans are engaged in bitter disputes over public lands. Nowhere has the battle been fiercer than around national monuments, particularly Bears Ears, which then President Barack Obama created in December 2016. Last December, President Donald Trump reduced the 1.35-million-acre monument by 85 percent.

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