The dispute over Bears Ears has been good for local business.
According to John Humphries, owner of Ophir’s Lizard Head Cycling Guides, the designation and subsequent review of the monument has created more awareness of the area.
In December 2016, President Obama designated approximately 1.3 million acres of public lands as the Bears Ears National Monument, much to the enthusiasm of environmentalists and recreationists across the country.
The area is known for its natural resources, and cultural and historical artifacts.
And while the move was applauded, Humphries said it wasn’t entirely necessary.
“Frankly, when they designated it, there is not really good oil and gas out there that is easily extractable,” Humphries said. “That is one of the reasons Obama designated the monument; it was fairly low-hanging fruit.”
Humphries, who has been running cycling tours to the area for over a decade, said he has noticed an upswing in visitors to the area since its designation, and on his tours in recent months.
On a stretch of one of his cycling tours where he usually didn’t see another soul for three days, he recently saw 12 vehicles out exploring the area.
“That is a huge difference compared to what it was,” he said. “It certainly increased awareness and when people call us now and we say Bears Ears, they have some reference to it.”
Humphries does believe his business has been affected for the better.
“We have had a few people that have signed up for it as a result of the Bears Ears designation,” he said.
Humphries had mixed feelings about the designation because it took a place that was previously undiscovered and popularized it.
“The area for the most part was already protected,” he said. “It was already public land and forest land. Really, the monument designation protects it from future oil and gas,” which Humphries said isn’t that accessible anyways.
“Everything eventually is found out, but I would rather have seen President Obama protect a place that was more in peril,” he added.
And while the designation stirred some controversy, the recent review of national monuments — including Bears Ears — ordered by President Trump has caused even more.
In June, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that the monument should “be reduced in size to conform with the intent of the Antiquities Act, that of designating the smallest compatible area,” a news release states.
He further recommended “the creation of a national conservation area, and official co-management by the local tribal governments.”
Right now, the tribal government only serves on an advisory board.
Humphries had his own personal brush with the review process.
While out on one of his tours, he noticed about 30 horseback riders. Having heard that Zinke was in the area, he asked if the secretary was part of the group.
He was, and he later talked with Humphries.
“Zinke rode up on his horse, he has sunglasses on and his cowboy hat, and he said, ‘Hi, I’m the secretary,” he said. “Being an outfitter making a living in Bears Ears you would think he might have some questions for me … he didn’t ask me anything.”
Humphries doesn’t anticipate that his business will be affected by any changes as a result of the review.
Designation or not, Humphries’ tours have given cyclists the chance to experience the natural beauty of the landscape for years.
He describes the area as “impressively remote and spectacularly wild.”
“There are just very deep canyons and empty landscapes which is really special,” he said.
One of his trips, The Hayduke Tour — a two week, 420-mile trip spanning from the north side of Lake Powell (through Bears Ears) to Moab — recently garnered attention from Outside magazine for its rugged meander through canyon country. The area was made famous in Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” The tour is named after one of the book’s main characters, George Hayduke.
For those looking for a tamer look at the monument, Humphries also offers a four-day jaunt called the Abajos Mountain Tour, which follows in the path of the last four days of the Hayduke Tour — also taking riders through remote mountain and desert landscapes.
For more information about the tours, visit lizardheadcyclingguides.com.