SALT LAKE CITY — A professional outdoor adventure photographer said he and his friends witnessed four men knocking over the mysterious monolith in San Juan County’s red rock country before breaking it into chunks with their hands and hauling it away.
“The story of what actually happened there is better than letting conspiracy theories run wild,” Ross Bernards told the Deseret News Tuesday. “We have had enough of that this year.”
Bernards posted photos and details of his Friday night experience on social media, something he said he probably would not have done had the group not witnessed the dismantling of the monolith.
“I probably would have just let it go,” he said.
“We thought it would be gone before we got there. We agreed it should go. That is why we did not say anything to the people taking it.”
A Facebook post he made as Ross Bernards Photography details the monolith’s late Friday removal by the group of men, with one of them saying as they hauled the pieces out in a wheelbarrow: “Leave no trace.”
Bernards said he visited the monolith to practice using light with his Federal Aviation Administration-approved drone.
The narrow box canyon was lit up strangely upon their arrival from Colorado, sparking an eerie sensation.
But instead of seeing otherworldly lights, Bernards said another group on-site had draped Christmas lights around the monolith.
“You could see the canyon walls lit up,” he said. “It was pretty cool to walk up and see it. It was quite surreal. ... It was beautiful in its own right, but I could see why it needed to go. People were touching and grabbing it.”
The sudden appearance of the 12-foot tall perfectly plumb monolith sparked an internet sensation since it was discovered Nov. 18 by state public safety and wildlife officers conducting an aerial surveillance of bighorn sheep.
The group landed the helicopter, got a closer look and posted photos on the Utah Department of Public Safety’s website.
Bernards said he took his own photos after driving in from Colorado and just as the group was making plans to leave, the four men suddenly rounded the corner.
“We thought they were another group coming up to do what we were doing and see this thing,” he said.
One of the men told Bernards, ‘You better have got your photos,” before two men from the group approached the monolith and pushed it over.
“Down it went. It didn’t take anything” to push it over, he added.
Slackliner and climber Sylvan Christensen, along with BASE jumper Andy Lewis, took credit for dismantling the monolith in a YouTube video showing a piece of the structure. The 23-second video is called, “We REMOVED the Utah monolith.”
In statement issued Tuesday night, Christensen said the group removed the now viral monolith because of the “damage caused by the internet sensationalism and subsequent reaction from the world.”
“We removed the Utah Monolith because there are clear precedents for how we share and standardize the use of our public lands, natural wildlife, native plants, fresh water sources, and human impacts upon them. The mystery was the infatuation and we want to use this time to unite people behind the real issues here — we are losing our public lands — things like this don’t help,” the statement reads.
Christensen went on to describe the environmental degradation — a concern echoed by the Bureau of Land Management — brought on by the scores of people flocking to see the monolith.
“People arrived by car, by bus, by van, helicopter, planes, trains, motorcycles and E-bikes and there isn’t even a parking lot. There aren’t bathrooms — and yes, pooping in the desert is a misdemeanor. There was a lot of that. There are no marked trails, no trash cans, and it’s not a user group area. There are no designated campsites. Each and every user on public land is supposed to be aware of the importance and relevance of this information and the laws associated with them,” he said.
“Let’s be clear: The dismantling of the Utah Monolith is tragic — and if you think we’re proud — we’re not ... The ethical failures of the artist for the 24” equilateral gouge in the sandstone from the erecting of the Utah Monolith, was not even close to the damage caused by the internet sensationalism and subsequent reaction from the world.”
Ironically, Lewis — a famous athlete — faced local criticism in the Moab area several years ago when he and multiple others temporarily draped a summit of the nearby Fisher Towers with Christmas lights and ornaments, according to a Moab Sun News story.
Since the monolith’s discovery, the BLM — which owns the land where it was planted — pleaded with the public to avoid the area due to its remote location and hostile but fragile terrain.
But people began showing up in large crowds to see it.
The result, according to BLM spokeswoman Kimberly Finch, was resource degradation of vegetation flattened by vehicles, toilet paper tossed around and human feces on the ground. Several passenger vehicles had to be towed as well because of the high clearance required on the rugged roads.
One of the men told the Bernards group: “This is why you don’t leave trash in the desert.”
He said the men appeared and left with the monolith within eight minutes.
Since his posting, Bernards said he has taken all sorts of grief on social media and has been accused of being a hypocrite for describing why the monolith needed to be taken down, yet visiting the site himself.
“Anyone taking the time to do five minutes of research on me and my posts on taking care of the environment would see I am very experienced at what I am doing and that I take care of the environment,” he said, adding that he has stopped reading the comments.
Bernards, 34, said he has done a lot of work in and exploring the remote expanses of Utah and practices “leave no trace,” and does not geotag or disturb fragile environments.
“If anything I can say will help people understand that the desert is not just sand and rock, that it is a fragile system and we need to take care of it. I want people to know,” he said.
Bernards has become a media sensation, alongside the monolith, since his social media posting and said he has spent the past two days fielding a vast number of media inquiries about what he and his friends witnessed, including from the New York Times.
Bombarded, he added, is an understatement in the interest he’s received.
He has had his own professional photography business for more than two years, specializing in adventure shots and working with outdoor gear companies to showcase their products.
In his post, Bernards went on to describe the scene the following day.
“We stayed the night and the next day hiked to a hilltop overlooking the area where we saw at least 70 different cars (and a plane) in and out. Cars parking everywhere in the delicate desert landscape. Nobody following a path or each other. We could literally see people trying to approach it from every direction to try and reach it, permanently altering the untouched landscape. Mother Nature is an artist, it’s best to leave the art in the wild to her.”
The Utah monolith, which closely resembled that of one in Stanley Kubrick’s move, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” spawned a flurry of speculation on the internet about alien invasions amid a year in which a pandemic, raging wildfires in the West and even a Utah earthquake have felt like harbingers of doom.
Even the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office got in on the musings, posting a Facebook lineup of likely suspects that showed an array of alien characters.
Finch said the BLM is not involved in investigating the monolith’s disappearance — it is personal property in which it has no jurisdiction over — but it is still looking into who put it there and why. It is illegal to install or construct something on federal land without a permit.
“All development on public lands needs to go through BLM and get authorization for approval,” she said. “We have had managers, rangers and a number of employees out there to see how the situation was evolving. We knew people would start to flock to the area.”
Since the monolith mystery unfolded it has presented a quandary to local and state investigators.
“The theft — that is what we are looking into,” said San Juan County Sheriff Jason Torgerson. “But we have not had anyone come forward to say they are missing a monolith.”
Torgerson said he doubts anyone will come forward and admit to installing the monolith, so the investigation is difficult.
“We don’t really have a crime unless we have a victim,” he said. “It’s been interesting.”
The sheriff did say his agency and federal partners are following up on any and all leads — including social media postings — that may lead them to some answers regarding the case of the mysterious monolith and all its working parts.
It has been befuddling, said San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams.
“I have no clue. I have searched my brain to see if I can come up with a reason why, and nothing,” he said. “It’s so strange.”
Satellite imagery shows the tall, three-sided structure was put on the public land sometime between August 2015 and October 2016.
Since its discovery, images are being photoshopped all over the web, but another real one similar to the one in San Juan County popped up on a hillside in Romania. It was first spotted Thursday, according to a story in The Mind Unleashed.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is offering a $10,000 reward for information on the missing Utah monolith.