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Op-ed: Mormons have a responsibility to protect public lands

The Bears Ears, of Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, May 8, 2017.
The Bears Ears, of Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, May 8, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

My first memory of Utah’s red rock wilderness was hiking Hole in the Rock as a child with my family. Wagon ruts carved in stone by early Mormon pioneers traveling through the region are etched in my memory. Stories of persevering pioneers have shaped my fortitude to push through challenges and adversities as a father, husband, community builder and entrepreneur.

The Bears Ears region has captured my interest throughout my life. I have had the opportunity to travel to every corner of the Bears Ears National Monument in different capacities — as a child, Boy Scout and Scout leader, professional architect and ecological planner, political leader and advocate, volunteer and visitor.

I spent one of the most amazing weeks of my younger adult life hiking 50-plus miles in the remote and rugged Dark Canyon wilderness area as a young scout leader. Our small band of Venture Scouts trekked from lush alpine mountain peaks to canyons in the desert floor. As we studied the geology, wildlife, habitats and remnants of civilizations from long ago, the land was our teacher. The experience was profound, inspiring and sacred.

I recently visited the area once again with my family and introduced my three children to the Bears Ears region. We walked, hiked, explored and learned together as we traversed the area, experiencing the beauty of this place and its people.

In my professional life, I am a historic preservationist, cultural advocate, community builder, educator and researcher. In my personal life, I am a protector and beneficiary of the spiritual and sacred, outdoor enthusiast and environmental conservationist. Naturally, the Bears Ears National Monument designation resonates with me on all these levels. Every peak, valley, plateau and canyon of this vast area is a historic, cultural and environmental “pearl of great price.”

Two years ago, I was inducted as a fellow in the American Institute of Architects at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a national historic site. The purpose of my visit was not religious, nor do I have a personal history connected to that place. Nevertheless, my experience there was sacred, spiritual and profound — seeing, hearing and feeling the weight of events central to the civil rights movement connected to that sacred and historic place.

Much of my professional career as an architect and planner has been spent researching, documenting and preserving historic sites. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I reflect on the efforts of my own faith leaders and historians to preserve LDS historical and sacred sites across the U.S. and around the world. I have been inspired by these places and honored to have had my own professional imprint on some of them.

The Bears Ears region has special history and meaning and great ancestral and spiritual significance to our native sisters and brothers. But it is equally important to all Americans as we preserve, visit and learn from its abundant sacred and historic places. They are all part of our collective human story.

This monument designation is important to all citizens of our country, including the communities, nations and cultures that have wandered, foraged, cultivated and cared for this land through the ages. It is remarkable that this particular monument designation was not only forged by an unprecedented uniting of many nations of native peoples, but also establishes a unique management guided by their collective wisdom, leadership and stewardship.

I join with people of diverse cultures, faiths and values who share a deep desire to preserve this sacred and historic region. I urge local, state and federal political leaders to keep the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument intact. As public land, this is our land. We have a responsibility to care for it and preserve it for future generations. It is a vital legacy for all Americans. Our descendants will benefit from this monumental act of stewardship and patriotism.

Søren Simonsen is a community and regional planner, architect and educator who has spent the past three decades — including 18 years as an appointed and elected official — creating livable cities, sustainable buildings and vibrant public places and preserving cultural sites, agriculture and wild lands, throughout Utah and the West.