Book Review: The Bears Ears: A Human History

I'm headed to the Bears Ears National Monument in a few weeks, so I figured I should do some more reading about the area. It's not new history to me, but a refresher never hurts, and many details were new.

Title: The Bears Ears: A Human History of America's Most Endangered Wilderness
Author: David Roberts
Publication Info: 2021, W.W. Norton. 336 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Blurb:
The Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, created by President Obama in 2016 and eviscerated by the Trump administration in 2017, contains more archaeological sites than any other region in the United States. It’s also a spectacularly beautiful landscape, a mosaic of sandstone canyons and bold mesas and buttes. This wilderness, now threatened by oil and gas drilling, unrestricted grazing, and invasion by Jeep and ATV, is at the center of the greatest environmental battle in America since the damming of the Colorado River to create Lake Powell in the 1950s.

In The Bears Ears, acclaimed adventure writer David Roberts takes readers on a tour of his favorite place on earth as he unfolds the rich and contradictory human history of the 1.35 million acres of the Bears Ears domain. Weaving personal memoir with archival research, Roberts sings the praises of the outback he’s explored for the last twenty-five years.

My Review:
The title, let alone the blurb, leaves no doubt as to where Roberts stands on the controversial national monument. That doesn't bother me: I agree, we need the monument, and we need it as Obama created it, if not larger.

But Roberts, while ultimately disagreeing with the locals who resent "government intrusion" into their local playground (and source of income via illegal pot-hunting), is not dismissive of the perspective of the other side. While he never lets the reader forget that the Anglo/Mormon "original settlers" were far from the first inhabitants of the area, he also grants their right to their feelings, and acknowledges that they have some reason to dislike and resent the federal agencies that actually own the land. The difficult relationship between the Mormons and the federal government has deep roots and cause for concern on both sides.

Nonetheless, Roberts argues that priority must be given to the opinions and desires of the Native Americans for whom the land is not only sacred but has been home since long before Europeans came to the continent. That their desires and needs were completely ignored by the Trump administrations so-called "review" of the monument is a sticking point for the author, and should be for anyone. Nor, from a strictly democratic perspective, are they the minority in the region.

The book presents an entertaining and at times painful look at the history of the region, as well as a strong argument in favor of maintaining the monument at the larger size. His accounts of travels deep into the wilderness now part of the Bears Ears National Monument leave me itching to follow in his footsteps--metaphorically, as the desire is to wander untracked canyons.

But Roberts also leaves me with a certain uneasiness about my own planned visit, as he laments the way the creation of a national monument causes an uptick in visitation that this fragile landscape may not be able to handle. Too many people like me want to come and soak in the landscape and the deep history. Being a traveler and an environmentalist always causes a certain angst, and in my opinion, should. At best, one can try to remember to walk lightly and leave as little trace as possible.

My Recommendation:
This is an excellent overview of the history of the area, both ancient and modern. If Roberts has chosen not to maintain a "journalistic balance," I think he is right to do so. The land needs all the advocates it can get. In the process, you'll learn about the first inhabitants of the region, and how their traces have been both a path to knowing them and the victims of both greed and ignorance. Sometimes it's not an easy read.

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed an electronic copy of The Bears Ears from my library, and received nothing from the author or the publisher in exchange for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”   

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2023
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.

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  1. Sounds like a great review of a much-needed book. Take photos, leave not even footprints, but raise awareness. Enjoy!

    1. Yes--and in that country, be very careful about not leaving footprints. Do not tiptoe through the crypto! (cryptobiotic soil, that is).


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