INDIAN CREEK — When Heidi Redd first came to Indian Creek 50 years ago, there was nothing.
No paved roads. No parking lots. No rock climbers carving new trails in the red sand.
She could sit beside the stream on her ranch and hear little besides the wind whistling through the towering cottonwoods.
But times have changed. Redd is 75 now. She’s lived on Indian Creek for more than 50 years, inside what is currently considered Bears Ears National Monument about an hour south of Moab. Her Dugout Ranch is one of the most iconic in the West, the site of Western movies and Marlboro ads. It sits at the base of steep red rock cliffs on the edge of Canyonlands National Park, not far from Newspaper Rock. Ralph Lauren wanted to buy it, as did Christie Brinkley, before Redd sold it to the Nature Conservancy in 1996 with the agreement she could stay on for life.
This is still a landscape of immense silence, and yet barely a day goes by without a parade of cars zipping by. They come to see the petroglyphs and the ancient Anasazi dwellings, to ride mountain bikes and camp. She notices the plates. They come from California and Colorado and Arizona and Nevada. And she can’t help but notice the parking lots — three already within six miles of her home — sprouting up around her like chokeweed.
The traffic has only increased since Bears Ears was declared a national monument last year. And now, with President Donald Trump coming to Salt Lake to reduce its size by a reported 85 percent, Redd is worried about its future.
“We’ve opened a pandora’s box,” Redd says. “Now that it's been declared a monument, people are coming. So whether it’s the original designation of 1.3 million acres, or whether it’s reduced to 100,000 acres, people are going to come. The question is how do we protect the land?”
Redd is but one voice in the heated debate over the future of Bear’s Ears. Talk to David Robinson, who runs 300 cattle on the ridge above Indian Creek, and he’ll tell you he’s thrilled Trump is reducing the monument. Talk to Bruce Adams, the county commissioner who sometimes wears a cowboy hat emblazoned with the words Make San Juan County Utah Great Again, and the word he uses to describe Trump’s decision is “ecstatic.” And stop by the Conoco Gas Station in Monticello, where farmers sometimes sit to discuss the drought or the price of hay, and you’ll hear little positive about Obama or Clinton declaring Grand Staircase or Bears Ears as national monuments. “They’re scared about losing their way of life,” says Adams, who is also a cattle rancher.
The fear, Adams says, is that national monuments often become national parks (as happened with the Grand Canyon and four of Utah’s five national parks), and bit by bit cowboys will lose access to land their families have used for generations to graze cattle.
At the Peace Tree Juice Café in Monticello, a touristy place with a hippy vibe, the waitress says she doesn’t know anybody in town who supports the monument. A few minutes later her mom, Kim Robinson, shows up breathlessly with a handful of flyers she’s been handing out around town for a planned celebration in front of the courthouse. “We couldn’t be happier Trump is doing this,” Robinson says. The support for the monument comes from outsiders, she says, the sort of people who bus in paid protesters and live along the Wasatch Front. Like Redd, she says she’s seen “hordes” of people come through Monticello since Bears Ears became a national monument and she worries about their impact.
“People say we need this designation to protect this land because it’s so pristine and beautiful. Well, this area’s been here. It wasn’t just discovered five years ago. It’s pristine and beautiful because we’ve been good stewards of it.”
Like the cattle ranchers, Robinson’s roots here go back generations; her grandfather ran a granary that her father inherited. She sees the fight against the monument as a fight to preserve her way of life. “We don’t want to become another Moab,” she says.
And yet to say there’s any consensus in this corner of Southeastern Utah on the issue is to ignore the voices of the environmentalists who live in Bluff, or the communities that lie between Blanding and Bluff, where three different tribes live on reservations, says Gavin Noyes.
The executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Native American-led organization that helped make Bears Ears a national monument, Noyes says a leaked report that Trump plans to rename Bears Ears "Shásh Jaa,” a Navajo name, shows how little the administration has listened to Native Americans in the process of studying the monument.
“It’s like straight out of an old Western where you take five tribes who have united on this, for one of the first times in history, and try to pit them against each other,” Noyes says. “It’s like they’re trying to open up historical wounds against Navajo people and fracture the coalition. There’s no way that’s going to work. This landscape is home to many tribes who have lived there for different periods over the millennia. And everybody has unique footprints they’ve left on the land."
A flawed process
The one thing all parties seem to agree on is that the process isn’t good for anyone. Adams, the county commissioner, calls it a state of limbo. David Robinson, who runs a ranch adjacent to Heidi Redd’s place says that whenever he asks the Bureau of Land Management what the future holds for the 10,000 acres he leases from them they say they won’t know until Trump makes a decision.
And yet, legal scholars say whatever Trump declares will offer little clarity, at least in the long run. While presidents have twice reduced the size of national monuments, they’ve never reduced them as drastically as Trump intends to do with Grand Staircase and Bears Ears.
“To reduce and to reduce on the scale Trump’s talking about would be totally unprecedented,” says John Leshy, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law who served in the Department of the Interior under Carter and Clinton. “There’s been nothing like it.”
The action is likely to be challenged in court, perhaps immediately, and Leshy says those who say that the Antiquities Act does not give the president power to reduce a national monument “have a pretty powerful argument.”
There have been seven attempts to pass bills that would give the president that power, says John Ruple, a Univeristy of Utah professor who specializes in the history of public lands, suggesting the president doesn’t in fact have the power.
And that means the future of Bears Ears will likely be tied up in court for years.
Call it a state of limbo, as County Commissioner Bruce Adams does, or an insult to the wishes of tribes as Noyes and other tribal leaders do. Or call it the “ping pong” effect, which is how Redd sees it.
Back to the ranch
While Redd may just be one voice in the debate, she has the unique vantage point of being someone who can appreciate all sides, and has as much claim to the land as anyone living. She came to Indian Creek in her 20s with her husband, the son of a pioneering cattleman from San Juan County, back when there were no paved roads in the area. They built their house near the creek, under a red mesa pocked with petroglyphs, 35 miles from the nearest town. For years they lived with no electricity, and until 10 years ago, Redd didn’t have a TV.
She and her husband raised their two sons on the ranch, and like the Native American tribes who lived in the area before her she recognizes the land by its natural features and has no need to consult a map.
“I know every spring, every canyon,” she says.
Redd is a bridge between worlds. She may be one of the only women to run a cattle ranch in San Juan County (she and her husband divorced in 1989 and she’s run the ranch with her sons since), but she’s as much a cowboy as any man. She’s pushed cattle off the mesa in the snow, slept in freezing temperatures on the range, and she knows how to do everything cowboys do, from castration to artificial insemination to fixing fence with bailing wire.
But she’s also an environmentalist, and an urbane and erudite reader. Her walls are lined with books, from Aristotle to Dostoevsky to Denis Johnson and Wallace Stegner, the environmentalist writer who once famously wrote that cattlemen rape the land.
Perhaps the best way to understand Redd, and her philosophy on the land, can be found on a side table, where she keeps two bronze statues. On one side is a cowboy who has tumbled head first off a bucking bronco. On the other is a Native American warrior, shirtless, sitting atop a horse while holding the skull of a buffalo to the sky. The horse’s head is bowed.
“They’re in complete harmony,” Redd says. Then she points at the other statue with a chuckle. “The cowboy, on the other hand, he’s trying to break the horse. He’s fighting nature.”
Redd’s ranch is a testament to harmony. Unlike many other Western ranchers, she doesn’t inveigh against the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the federal land many ranchers pay fees to graze on. She sees the agency as an important partner who can help ranchers graze the land responsibly, without hurting it.
Like the Native Americans who came before her, and whose dwellings dot the land, Redd says she feels a spiritual connection to the place.
“I don’t think you can live in this canyon for 50 years and not feel that way,” she says. “You can’t be out in nature for 12 hours a day, sleeping under the stars, see the change in season without feeling a spiritual connection to the people who came here before, but also a connection to the deer and the bear and all the wildlife.”
“I guess sometimes I feel like a mother bear trying to protect this place and when I see things eroding so fast, the way they have in the last five years, I think, ‘Whoa.’”
Redd says that Bears Ears has received so much publicity because of the fight over its future, that more and more people have begun trekking past her place to the park. She worries that without funding for education programs, park rangers and a visitor’s center, things will only get worse.
Many of the commercials advocating protecting the park have featured drone videos of ancient ruins, which are also identified on maps, and Redd says that’s now where most visitors want to go. And yet, because of the disputes over the fate of the monument, Congress has yet to allocate any funding for measures that would educate the public and protect the land, dwellings and artifacts.
“People aren’t coming to destroy the monument,” Redd says. “They want to see it, but they aren’t educated. Right now we have very, very few regulations. A Pandora’s box has been opened. There’s no putting it back. Monument or not, that box is open, and we are going to have to deal with the flood of people here so it doesn’t become this helter-skelter of cars and activities.”
Redd, who says she supports the monument, would like to see a system similar to the permitting process required to raft down certain rivers in the area. The fighting over boundaries has prevented stakeholders from sitting down and forming a master plan for the area.
“We all need to sit at the table and realize that the number one priority isn’t our business, isn’t our recreational weekend, it’s the land, and how can we preserve this land and always use it,” Redd says. “I would just like us to recognize, we have a chance now, just a grain of a chance to save something.”
Redd steps outside, onto the front porch of her ranch house, where the pale winter sun is shining over the pastures where she keeps her horses. For a moment, all is quiet, and then from a few hundred yards away, you can hear the sound of a car passing, and then another, and then another.