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MONTICELLO — Bears Ears has spiked in popularity within the five years it's been a national monument and at the center of federal land management controversy.
As federal agencies continue to weigh its future, people are still flocking to the national monument in droves — especially to an ancient Native American location commonly known as House on Fire. The site features five granaries built into Cedar Mesa sandstone. It's believed that ancient Puebloans lived there between 700 and 2,500 years ago, according to the Utah Office of Tourism.
It's estimated that crowd size has quadrupled at the site since 2015, according to the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the monument. That's why the agency wants to make improvements to the area to handle the traffic coming to the ancient site.
An environmental assessment released Friday outlines a few possibilities that include a formal parking area by state Route 95 and a trailhead that would include a vault toilet, five picnic sites and educational signage. The parking lot, which would be "surfaced with gravel or other imported material that is similar in color to native material" would accommodate 25 regular-sized vehicles and five oversized vehicles, according to the document.
Agency officials say it will help reduce issues created by roadside parking and it would allow them to consolidate the trailhead, fee area and educational information in one location.
Per the document, the proposed area is an "existing disturbed area where vehicles are currently parking" to walk to the House on Fire site. The bureau says the site is about a 1.5-mile hike from the South Fork of Mule Canyon trailhead, which is near the proposed trailhead. The document adds that there's a proposed half-mile trail that would connect the Mule Canyon Developed Site parking area to the House on Fire Trailhead, as well.
If the plan is approved, construction could begin "in multiple phases" starting at the end of this year or in spring 2022. The document adds that the plan mostly avoids disrupting archeological sites and features in the area and that archeologists will "monitor social trail remediation activities to avoid unintentional damage to sites on the canyon rim" — the one area that might be impacted.
Meanwhile, BLM officials said Friday they have consulted and continue to consult with sovereign tribal nations in piecing together the proposal. They shared a scope of the project with tribal nation leaders and the public last year that received "generally supportive" feedback, according to the agency.
One comment did, however, express concern that new parking would "'park, snap and go' hordes to the site."
"It will be overrun. If you keep it low-key, only the adventurous will continue to make the trek," the comment continued.
However, agency officials retorted that growing visitation has been "driven by a combination of increased media surrounding the (Bears Ears National Monument) designation and social media exposure, enhanced by successful state and county advertising campaigns" and not by any on-site infrastructure.
The bureau also on Friday opened a public comment period on the environmental assessment document and proposed action for site improvements. People can submit their feedback on the plan online at this link or by mailing: BLM Monticello Field Office / Att: House on Fire Trailhead, P.O. Box 7 / Monticello, Utah 84535. The deadline to submit feedback on the proposal is 11:59 p.m. Oct. 11.
"We all can play a role in caring for this nationally significant Ancestral Puebloan site. These picturesque granaries help tell the story of the people who lived here before and their descendants who still rely on the landscape," said Jake Palma, the Bears Ears National Monument manager, in a statement Friday. "This proposal, if approved, would help the BLM protect cultural resources and improve visitor experiences."
Bears Ears, of course, has been at the center of land management controversy since President Barack Obama designated it as a national monument in 2016. A year later, President Donald Trump reduced the size of the monument by 85%. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling for a review of the decision to shrink the size of the monument. Utah leaders have publicly called on Biden to be included in the conversations about its future.
While Interior Secretary Deb Haaland reportedly made her recommendation regarding the future of the monument's size, neither Biden nor the Department of Interior has announced what that recommendation is. The House on Fire site is located within the national monument's current size of 201,876 acres.
The House on Fire improvement proposal isn't the only plan in consideration to address Bears Ears' growth in popularity. Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed a bipartisan bill that created an advisory committee to study the need for a Bears Ears visitor center just outside of the national monument.
"There are amazing people with a long, long history in that region," said Utah Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, after co-introducing the bill in February. "And the monument's desire to respect those people, respect their culture, to help them preserve it and display it and kind of inform the world of who they are and what's important to them — that rises above all politics."