House on Fire

House On Fire
Gorgeously photogenic, the orange and peach striations on the rock above the granaries make it look like an incendiary inferno is engulfing the roof

During our 79-day tour of the southwestern US, one of our favourite wilderness areas was the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument (BENM) in southeastern Utah. On the weekend of May 13, we hiked into House on Fire, one of the most famous Puebloan ruins in BENM. It’s so dazzling we went twice, on Saturday evening when the low rays of the sun ignite the virtual fire and again the next morning when we did a longer hike to see other ruins in Mule Canyon. Although we didn’t see US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, ranger Dan told us he was in the area—on a mission—the results making news around the world this week.

BENM was proclaimed in December 2016 by President Obama in the twilight of his final term. The proclamation, under The Antiquities Act of 1906, was controversial and deemed by many to greatly exceed the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects of historic or scientific interest.” So on December 4, 2017, Obama was “Trumped” with a counter-proclamation, splitting the BENM in two, and shrinking its size substantially—by 85% to 200,000 acres. Trump promised future “wealth and wonder,” re-opening the area for more cattle grazing, mining and resource development.

We spent a week in BENM this year. Here’s our take on the House-on-Fire news this week.

Honey, I shrunk the Monuments!

Here are some of the precious areas that we visited within the newly proclaimed Monuments that will now have relaxed restrictions compared to the protection they received under BENM:

Why was Bears Ears designated a National Monument?

BENM, a geographically diverse area in Utah’s San Juan County, has about 100,000 Puebloan archaeological and cultural sites—a higher density per square mile than any other county in the nation. Tagline: “The World’s Greatest Outdoor Museum!”

Being remote was its protection. Until the Internet. It’s estimated that visits to San Juan County tripled between 2005 and 2015 and doubled again in 2016. But as you might expect, among the increase came disrespectful visitors. They stole potsherds, camped in ancient dwellings, scrawled graffiti on rock panels, fired bullets at rock art and hacked off an ancient rock carving with an electric saw. In 2016 there was only one full-time law enforcement ranger.

What do people in Utah think?

Utahans aren’t happy that 66% of the state is federal land. But after its creation, 64% concurred that BENM should be protected. However, San Juan is the state’s poorest county so about a third of Utahans said BENM should be open for more cattle grazing and resource development.

The opportunity to comment was only open for 15 days! (We contributed several postcards)

 Can a president rescind a National Monument?

No. In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that granted the power of monument modification solely to Congress. The Wilderness Society, the Native American Rights Fund and others have filed suits challenging the rescission.

What difference will it make to House on Fire?

After cutting BENM acreage by 85%, Trump carved the remainder into two little National Monuments: Shash Jaa (the Navajo name for the iconic twin buttes), and Indian Creek. House on Fire is in Shash Jaa. So is Comb Ridge—where our hike into Procession Panel was one of the highlights of our trip. (The Anasazi came to Comb Ridge in significant numbers: “communities packed with public architecture… inhabited for centuries by many different people” as Craig Childs writes.) Indian Creek protects another of our favourite Puebloan sites—Newspaper Rock.

We’d have preferred that BENM remained intact. Despite the problems of disrespectful visitors, the remote area has survived relatively unscarred for hundreds of years. Protection, surveillance and education are required for this to continue in the future.

What about the ruins in the “orphaned” 85%?

The Bureau of Land Management or the United States Forest Service will manage the orphaned areas. The ruins in these areas will have minimal protection under various Acts and Regulations.

The orphaned 85% will be reopened to mining and resource exploration. Uranium and other minerals have previously been mined in the area. Mining law allows private citizens to prospect on federal land, access the area and stake claims acquiring rights to mine those minerals. The prospectivity for oil and gas is very low except along the eastern edge of the new monuments where a lease auction is scheduled for March 2018, and at an under-explored area just south of House on Fire.

So what are the issues?

How effective will enforcement be on the 1.1 million acres of orphaned land where there are many Puebloan sites—including Grand Gulch’s Turkey Pen Ruin?

What perils will enhanced access bring? Motorized vehicles, including ORVs, will be allowed on any road that existed prior to December 2016. Within BENM, there were 1,400 miles of “roads” (wash bottoms, cow paths and two-track trails) that had been closed. Anyone who hikes the canyons and plateaus of southern Utah will inevitably see the scars and hear the whine of off-road vehicles across the landscape. Gone will be the supreme quality of BENM recognized in the document accompanying Obama’s declaration:

From earth to sky, the region is unsurpassed in wonders…Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence.

Isn’t it a threat to democracy when you have the dictate of man trump the rule of law?

It makes you think about the phrase House on Fire doesn’t it?

Readers, this is serendipitous beyond imagination.

The phrase House on Fire was first used on Monday, December 4, 1741! Ready for this? It was in the book History of Friedrich the Second, called Frederick the Great in Chapter VI—“Mayor of Landshut.”

Burgermesiter Spener is speaking. Here’s what he says:

A Sovereign Mayor that governs by fear, he must live in continual fear of every one, and of himself withal. A weak basis, and capable of overturn in one day. On the contrary, the love of your burger subjects—that, if you can kindle it, will go on like a house on fire (Ausbruch eines Feueres), and streams of water won’t put it out.

Despite some depressing political decisions, southern Utah is an area we love to which we will return.


UPDATE: October 11, 2021. In proclamations signed today, October 8, 2021, President Biden reestablished the original boundaries of both monuments, as well as federal-intertribal collaborative management for Bears Ears. Read more about President Biden’s landmark actions and see maps of the restored monuments ›

UPDATE: Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Slash and Burn.” The New Yorker, January 22, 2018.

UPDATE: See the fantastic article “Food Fight” by Kathryn Schultz in The New Yorker, October 1, 2018, for more about Blake and Jen and what they are doing “at the remote outpost of the resistance” to Trump’s devastating order to cut 85% of Grand Staircase-Escalante.

The Atlantic. Meyer, Robinson. “Obama’s Environmental Legacy in Two Buttes.”

BBC News. Cook, James. “Bears Ears: Inside the fight for Utah’s contested national monuments.”

Carlyle, Thomas. History of Friedrich the Second, called Frederick the Great. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1862-1874. Here’s where I found the quote online.

Childs, Craig. House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest. Indiana: Back Bay Books, 2008. Our thanks to Russ Nordstrand for introducing us to a book with muscular writing that we devoured on our journey, a book that provided more history, insight and truth about the Ancients than any other source.

Copeland, Kathy & Craig. Hiking From Here to Wow: Utah Canyon Country. Birmingham, Alabama: Wilderness Press, 2008. Without this guidebook, we would never have known where to hike to see Ancestral ruins. As the Copelands write, because of “pot-hunting greed heads, destructive ORVers, and insensitive oafs…maps are mute with regard to archeology” and so are the men and women behind the desks at visitor centres, which is “sad, frustrating, and completely understandable.”

The Guardian. Smith, David, and Milman, Oliver. “Trump confirms he’ll shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments.”

New York Times. Turkewitz, Julie. “President Trump Declares Major Reduction of Bears Ears Monument.”

Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly, Brian. “Trump Turned Two Vast Utan National Monuments into Five Smaller Ones and Here’s a Look at the New Sites and Key Lands that got Left Out.”

8 Responses

  1. Stunning photography…amazing petroglyphs…and similarities to ones in northern Saskatchewan en route to Nistowiak Falls.

    1. Craig Childs says the Navajo left their Athabascan homeland of southeast Alaska and BC around the eighth century but probably didn’t get to the southwestern US until around the fifteenth century. It makes you want to read more and find out more doesn’t it?

  2. Thank you for this. Lovely pictures of a very interesting area of North America. It’s sad if Trump is able to reverse Obama’s designation; just one more act by a man who’s values seem to be opposite to my own and so many others. I feel sorry for the people living there.
    I love reading your blog, with your insight, research, and wonderful photos. I learn so much and really appreciate the time you invest in your entries.
    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks Ross. We did a lot of research to better understand the the trade-off between open access for ORVs, mining and hydrocarbon development vs limited access for the preservation of the cultural landscape. It’s our conclusion that the two can’t co-exist in this area, so that removing land from the Bears Ears National Monument was an unacceptable proclamation.

    1. Thanks Diane. Much of the 4-corners area of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona is spectacular, but we were blown away by what we saw (and the silence) in the Bears Ears National Monument.

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