The route to Newspaper Rock — so named because it’s carved with ancient petroglyphs — from the tiny city of Monticello, Utah, follows a narrow two-lane road through a breathtaking landscape.
It’s breathtaking partly because of the way the land craters into canyons on stretches of State Road 211, causing uninitiated drivers to grip the steering wheel. Soon the earth rises into mountains that seem to glow red under the sun. On one short stretch, the mountains divide, giving way to the road.
This is the northern part of the Bears Ears National Monument, which President Barack Obama designated as a monument in December. President Trump has been considering a reversal of that decision.
Trump issued an executive order in late April to review Bears Ears and 26 other land and marine monuments within 120 days, a period that ends in late August. Trump was fiercely lobbied by Utah public officials who are opposed to the new monument, and he paid special attention to Bears Ears, calling on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review it first.
Dogged by protesters who support monument status as a way to protect Bears Ears and its archaeological sites, Zinke toured the 1.35 million-acre site in the spring, calling it “drop-dead gorgeous land.” Within weeks, he recommended that the monument be dramatically scaled down. He said a final decision wouldn’t be made until the other monuments had been reviewed.
So it’s not clear whether the portion of Bears Ears that leads to Newspaper Rock will remain part of the monument. Zinke gave no indication of what should stay and what should go, saying that Congress has a role to play in future efforts to carve up the nation’s newest monument.
Utah residents who live near Bears Ears are among those who oppose monument designation. They regard it as a federal intrusion in a state where the U.S. government owns more than 60 percent of the land. Supporters — who contributed 80 percent of the comments solicited in the review process — favor keeping Bears Ears whole. It is the only monument designated at the request of a coalition of Native American tribes: Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Ute.
Newspaper Rock is an odd name for a boulder seemingly in the middle of nowhere, its Native American petroglyphs recording 2,000 years of history.
It’s been described as spiritual and eerie. There are drawings of humans with small heads and big bodies and of wheels that sit off on their own. There are also people on horseback and animals that were probably hunted as game.
Conservationists say there are tens of thousands of similarly valuable sites in Bears Ears, containing pottery, drawings, dwellings and spiritual gathering places.
As arresting as the symbols at Newspaper Rock is their lack of protection. All that stands between gawkers who could deface centuries of history is a single wrought-iron fence that a teenager could hop without much effort.
Monument designations often outpace the hiring of personnel to protect antiquities. Sometimes Congress neglects to provide the funding immediately because of politics or the slow pace of budget decisions.
The monument is more than “drop-dead gorgeous,” as Zinke described it during his tour. It is history carved in stone. And it feels alive.