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From Utah’s Red Rock Desert, A Cry for Protecting Our Public Lands

the real estate that can be sold, or the commodity it can become. Utah’s red rock desert, as vulnerable as it now is, will survive us with or without presidential proclamations. But we may not survive without them.

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President Trump's executive order reduces the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent. Maps Courtesy of Stephanie Smith/Grand Canyon Trust When Senator Orrin Hatch held a news conference about Bears Ears shortly after Trump’s executive order last spring, he said, “The Indians they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or a wilderness.” Pressed by a journalist for an example, he replied, “Just take my word for it.“ In that moment, the patriarchy of Mormon Church was in full view. I remember when the Native American author Vine Deloria, Jrcame to the University of Utah to speak in 1974His topic, “Cultural Genocide.” He called out the Mormon Church’s Indian Placement Program as racistThis was a common practice among Mormon families whereby they would raise a Navajo or Ute child in their homes and “educate” the child in the ways of “The Spirit.” The program was encouraged and supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to “benefit their salvation.” Deloria’s message was a knife slicing into my conscience: Shame on all of you within the LDS Church who think our people are better off in your homes than in their own homes with their own familiesHe said something about not needing our charity, but respect; not needing our culture, but their ownI heard himHis ire entered my bloodstream and traveled straight to my heartI felt the pain of the oppressor, as one who had been taught to believe we were “a chosen people” and that I was right, and then, suddenly, came into an abrupt understanding that I was wrong. It was only a matter of time until I left my home religionBut I have never left my home ground, or stopped loving the place and the people I come from. In the blood-red shadows of Monument Valley that stretch across sage and sand, what endures is what is standing Recently, I visited with Jonah Yellowman, a spiritual adviser among the Dine’ (Navaho), a powerful leader in the conversation surrounding Bears EarsHe has become a friend I greatly admire and trustIn the blood-red shadows of Monument Valley that stretch across the sage and sand where buttes and buttresses rise as stone monuments that need no designation, what endures is what is standing – the iconic right and left mittens of Monument Valley, physical manifestations of geologic time that have been shaped and sculpted by wind and waterAllowing one’s eyes to scan the serrated horizon, one cannot help but be struck by our own insignificance in the face of this vast expanse of layered timeHumbled by a panoramic beauty indifferent and unsettling, I find myself on the edge of an unknowable spiritual power emanating from the land itself. “Bears Ears is a sacred place for us,” Jonah reiterated“Now, it is threatenedWe have to go deeper.” I keep thinking about what he might mean to go deeper and how this might set us on a very different course as a people rooted in a place called Utah, and for that matter all of us who live in AmericaJonah has consistently said, “We are not just protecting Bears Ears for our people, but all people.” I am tired of being told I am on the far side of left-leaning politics, that I am an environmental extremist, an eco-terrorist, an activistI am tired of my own anger that is easily triggered and accessed by a Trump tweet or another act of aggression laid out by the Department of the Interior, such as opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling just because they can, even as fossil fuels are headed the way of the dinosaurs. Bears Ears contains Native American cultural and archaeological artifacts, including centuries-old rock paintings. Bob Wick/BLM I don’t want to live in a binary world of either/or, rural or urban, politically correct or incorrect, or most damaging of all, segregated into a world of black or brown or whiteWe have all been diminished by this ongoing fight over wildlands in UtahAnd in the case of Bears Ears, the people I know and love on both sides of this issue, those in favor of the monument and those who are not, those within my own family and those in my own community in alliance with the tribes – when we sit down and break bread together, what we all can agree on is that we love these lands and share a desire for a future that includes wild and reverent spaces where the wing beats of ravens register as prayers and the sweet smell of sage brings us back home.  We need to find a common language, alongside what binds us together, not what tears us apartWe need to have the hard conversations between neighbors and family and really listen to one another. Perhaps Jonah’s call to go deeper is a call to acknowledge the power that resides in the earth itself, the organic intelligence inherent in deserts and forests, rivers and oceans, and all manner of species beyond our ownWe cannot create wild nature, we can only destroy it — and in the end, in breathtaking acts of repentance, try to restore what we have thoughtlessly removed at our own expense, be it wolves or willows or cutthroat trout or these precious desert lands. ALSO ON YALE E360 How a surge in visitors is overwhelming America's national parksRead more. Bears Ears is a place of powerAnyone who has walked this erosional landscape of buttes and mesas and experienced the embrace of red rock canyons animated by the handprints of the ancient ones carefully placed on sandstone walls rising upward to a starlit sky cannot stand by and be witness to its demise by those who care only for what the land can produce, the real estate that can be sold, or the commodity it can become. Utah’s red rock desert, as vulnerable as it now is, will survive us with or without presidential proclamationsBut we may not survive without them.  Facebook Twitter Email Terry Tempest Williams is an American author, conservationist, and activistHer writing is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by the arid landscape of her native Utah and its Mormon cultureWilliams is the author many books, including the environmental literature classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; Red; The Open Space of Democracy; Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and most recently, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National ParksShe is Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Divinity SchoolMore about Terry Tempest Williams ? Topics Policy Conservation Ethics Activism Environmental Justice Politics Regions North America Join the conversation: From Utah’s Red Rock Desert, A Call for Protecting Our Public Lands Show comments ? Never miss a feature! 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