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Treading Lightly On Sacred Land

Exploring and protecting Utah’s Grand Gulch.

Words and photos by Sage Marshall

As my father and I scramble to the Perfect Kiva ruin, the evening sun tints the canyon walls gold. We find faded rock art, an impeccably preserved interior room, and a wooden ladder that protrudes from the circular “perfect” kiva. Built between 900 and 1150 CE, most of the adobe and wood of the roofing is original, although some of it was partially restored in the 1970s. Inside, the kiva smells like a thousand-year-old closet. Shrunken corncobs and ceramic shards litter the dirt floor.

Perfect Kiva sits five miles down Bullet Canyon in Southeastern Utah, 111 miles south of Moab. It and Grand Gulch comprise the 37,580-acre maze known as the Grand Gulch Primitive Area. The Ancestral Puebloans lived in cliff dwellings here from 1,500 BCE to 1300 CE, when they joined the Hopi and Zuni tribes.

Today, Grand Gulch is the center of a 1.9-million-acre swath of land that five Native American Tribes are petitioning to be designated as Bears Ears National Monument (the “Bears Ears” are twin buttes). The tribes are fighting to protect and co-manage the land with the federal government. As they outline in their mission statement: They hope, “to make this National Monument the most deeply and truly ‘Native’ of all federal public land units.”

President Obama can exert executive power to protect the land, as he’s already done with 1.8 million acres in California and 590,000 acres in Idaho, but many Utah legislators and residents oppose federal intervention. The typical response prioritizes the economic development of the ranching, mining, and oil industries.

Although this is my father’s first time visiting the area, it’s not mine: I came on a guided school trip years ago, and was profoundly affected when my group’s guide led us to a nearly intact pot hidden behind a random boulder. Our guide brought us to hidden ruins in unnamed side canyons, but he never showed us the enigmatic whole pot that he had found years earlier. In fact, he vowed to never return, hoping that it wouldn’t be found by anyone else. After the trip, he had us shuffle our pictures before posting them on social media. He wanted us to protect certain artifacts from possible looters. We learned to respect the relics by leaving them in their natural resting places.

Currently, Grand Gulch Utah is a Wilderness Study Area (WSA) managed by the Bureau of Land Management, meaning that the land is temporarily protected but lacks permanent defense. Utah Congressman Rob Bishop developed a compromise that would conserve a large portion of the land, including Grand Gulch, in return for the rapid development of other “less important WSA’s.” The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition opposes the compromise. Instead, they are lobbying for President Obama to protect the entire cultural landscape.

On the second day of our trip, my father and I lose track of our distance-traveled in the ebbs and curves of the canyon, and miss the turnoff for upper Grand Gulch. In the lower section, the trail fades in and out. We scramble back and forth across the creek bed to examine small ruins tucked against the canyon wall. My thoughts turn to the early white explorers who also braved this rugged terrain—and who removed thousands of artifacts, including mummified bodies, in the late nineteenth century. As I graze my hand across plaster walls and fumble with decorated ceramic shards, I can’t help wondering what I would have done in a similar situation.

Today, most visitors respect the ruins. Yet just one BLM police officer is responsible for all of San Juan County, and Puebloan artifacts are disappearing. The visitor book at Perfect Kiva overflows with complaints about vanishing potshards. One of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition’s main objectives is to “… finally [put] an end to the inexcusable, centuries-long grave-robbing, looting, and destruction.” It seems like a small ask.

As we hike out on the third day, I look back on the vast chasm that contains the scattered remnants of a civilization. Across from me, the layered sandstone wall marks a curve in the canyon, and I can no longer spot the wide and sandy floor. My dad lets out a throaty howl in his embarrassing way, but upon hearing his voice echo through the isolated canyon, I raise my head and join him. When I get home, I’ll send President Obama a letter, inviting him to backpack Grand Gulch with us. Make your voice heard by signing this petition: bearsearscoalition.org/action.


If you go: Get backpacking permits at Kane Gulch Ranger Station from 8am-12pm on the day of your trip during high season (March 1-June 15 and September 1-October 31) Day permits and low season backpacking permits can be purchased at the trailhead.

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