“I wouldn’t characterize all the climbing here as enjoyable but … how do I say this … it’s the best.” Josh Ewing has the cliff and the summit to himself. Comb Ridge, southeastern Utah. MIKEY SCHAEFER

Defined by the Line

Steve Bartlett
Climbing 2015

If you’re a climber, chances are you’ve dreamt of climbing here or, better yet, you actually have. It’s a region that includes some of the most perfect (and the most crumbly) climbing on earth: Cedar Mesa, Valley of the Gods, the Abajo Mountains and, dear to climbers, Indian Creek. As threats to these public lands in southeastern Utah accumulate, local people—climbers among them—are joining forces to protect the area that they call the Bears Ears region. But the fight isn’t finished.

In 2012, Josh Ewing and his wife moved to Bluff, Utah, population 250. He was burned-out from his high-stress corporate job and sick of the long drive from Salt Lake City to the red-rock country where he loved to climb. Colleagues shook their heads as he walked away from a six-figure salary. His family thought he was crazy to move his city-girl wife to the middle of nowhere. Climbing friends laughed at him having to make a 2½-hour round-trip to Colorado just to get full-strength beer.

But for Ewing, it was time to draw a line in the sand.

He knew that the climbing areas in southeastern Utah that he loved most, like Texas Tower, Valley of the Gods and even Indian Creek, were under fire. Today, in 2015, the threats have only increased. Looting of archaeological sites (in many cases, grave robbing) and vandalism of sacred places continue on a regular basis. Irresponsible motorized and pedestrian travel destroys vistas and erodes sensitive habitat. And aggressive new oil and gas development threatens to industrialize an area renowned for its beauty, quiet and solitude.

The immeasurable landscape of the Bears Ears boasts an amazing amount of rock and many lifetimes’ worth of routes still unclimbed, even though modern climbers have been exploring here for many years. In 1961, Layton Kor and Huntley Ingalls ascended Castleton Tower farther north near Moab and found to their surprise, a pleasant climb on excellent rock. But for two decades, few climbers understood what the pair had discovered.

During the late ‘80s, things changed. Climbers adopted camming devices that safely protected the desert’s parallel-sided cracks; Eric Bjørnstad’s climbing guidebook, Desert Rock, was published. The new and fairly accessible sport of mountain-biking was gaining popularity. And the Internet now provided detailed information about a region that previously had been obscure for many travelers. Ever since, increasing numbers of recreational visitors of all kinds have arrived in the Utah desert. First port of call is still Moab, a bustling city that’s embraced a visitor- and service-based economy. Drive a short way south from Moab to San Juan County, though, and you’ll find the towns of Monticello and Bluff—quiet, reserved and still dedicated to the cattle- and resource-based economy that has served them well for several generations.

As the Moab area has grown crowded, many people look to more isolated places, and the people of San Juan County have already seen changes brought by increased visitation and know that more change may be coming. To tackle the threats, San Juan County residents, with leadership from Native Americans and local conservationists, are developing a broader vision of the Bears Ears region and assuming an early, collaborative and proactive stance.

Not long after arriving in the Four Corners area, Ewing was drafted to be the executive director of a small nonprofit called Friends of Cedar Mesa (FoCM), which seeks to protect the wild lands of San Juan County. Although hesitant to jump into running a conservation group in a place with a reputation for being antienvironmentalist, he wouldn’t stand on the sidelines. FoCM and another local conservation group called Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), are now collaborating with county leaders, government officials and other national conservation groups.

“Utah Diné Bikéyah is advancing protection for Bears Ears by helping other Americans understand the spiritual and cultural significance of this place to Native American tribes,” says Willie Grayeyes, chairman of the UDB board, noting that the region has been used by Native people for millennia, and hundreds of Diné visit it seasonally for herb collection, pinyon pinenut gathering, ceremonies, hunting and firewood harvesting. Moreover, adds Grayeyes, the Bears Ears buttes are considered “a shrine that literally and symbolically protects Navajo people.”

Locals working to protect the Bears Ears region know that a collaborative process offers the best chance for them to have a say in how federal lands in their county are managed. And most agree that the best shot at protection is designation by the federal government, perhaps as a national monument created by the president, or as a national conservation area created by Congress. Exactly how the land would be managed will be unclear until after a designation is made, but as Ewing warns, “The greatest risk for climbers is to do nothing and hope problems caused by increased visitation will just go away. If we engage early on and get involved in planning, we’re much more likely to be satisfied with the outcome.”

Ewing is a self-proclaimed desert rat and says the region’s climbing has everything he could want. “I love the splitters at Indian Creek almost as much as I love the chance to scare myself putting up a new route on some remote, chossy tower. This is one of the wildest places in the world to climb and canyoneer.” He recognizes not many venture past the Creek to climb the area’s rowdy towers. “I wouldn’t characterize all of the climbing here as enjoyable, but ... how do I say this ... the climbing in Bears Ears is the best. At least it is to me.” Not to mention that this region, particularly Cedar Mesa, represents the most significant unprotected archaeological area in the United States. “I would hope all climbers can get behind protecting a place as unique as this.”

Over the past three decades there’ve been many changes in the area. It’d be easy to say that every change—more people, more cars, more roads—is for the worse, but that’s a cop-out. In 2015, we have what we have. Best to look around, plan ahead and be part of the future of these lands. For instance, think on this: The most productive single onshore oil well in the lower 48 in 2012 was not in Texas or Oklahoma, but in southeastern Utah. What if the next oil field turned out to be smack in the middle of Valley of the Gods?

Seldom-visited summits like the top of Texas Tower, 600 feet up in the air, are probably safe from exploitation and change. But the future of the surrounding landscape, for a hundred miles in every direction, is uncertain. Some climbers feel drawn by the flawless jamcracks of Indian Creek. Others, like Ewing, seek out the silent, disintegrating towers that wait in the remote labyrinth of canyon country. But all climbers are defined by the lines they love, and in turn by the regions that contain those lines. By refusing the destruction of the Bears Ears region, we can draw a line in the sand and become part of a continuum far more valuable than oil and shale profits, and more important than any send or summit.