Inside the new battle for the American West

The push to cut back federally protected lands is fueling a dispute rooted in our history and culture. The big question: Whose land is it?

Arch Canyon is still protected within Bears Ears National Monument, but other canyons and thousands of Native American archaeological sites now lie outside the monument’s newly reduced—and still contested—borders. The monument is named after the twin buttes on the horizon, which are held sacred by local tribes.
Photograph by Aaron Huey

Deep in a box canyon in Utah, in the heart of the fractured land known as Bears Ears National Monument, there is a cave—a swooping, mineral-streaked alcove in a sandstone cliff.

In December 1893 a rancher-explorer named Richard Wetherill pushed his way through dense reeds and discovered inside that alcove a stacked-stone ruin where a prehistoric group of Native Americans once lived. He named the site Cave Seven. Some would later condemn him as a vandal and a looter—but Cave Seven proved to be one of the most important finds in the archaeology of the American Southwest.

It’s easier to get there today than it was in Wetherill’s era, but it’s not easy. You bump along a dirt road that twists long miles through arroyos and canyons, past jagged crags and sandstone domes. Then you are on foot. You clamber through a dry watercourse clogged with bitterbrush and poison ivy; you sidle along a rock ledge. Look up: A dissolving jet contrail is the only sign of the time in which we live. Look down: What seem like stones at your feet are in fact remnants of cooking vessels. Such relics are everywhere, if you know how to look: A saltbush-covered mound conceals a ceremonial kiva; a subtle line in the earth marks a road connecting ancient villages. All around is evidence of things made, laid, and lived in centuries ago.

Read This Next

Extreme heat triggers mass die-offs and stress for wildlife in the West

Core of Mars is shockingly big, NASA mission reveals

Chunk of an ancient supercontinent discovered under New Zealand

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet