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Cottonwood Wash, Bears Ears and the character of canyons

Cottonwood Wash is seen looking north to the Abajo Mountains. Used with permission of The Wildlands Conservancy. (Tim Peterson/Grand Canyon Trust/Eco-flight)

In an extraordinary move this summer, The Wildlands Conservancy, with support from the Center of Biological Diversity and other donors, purchased 320 acres in Cottonwood Wash near Bluff, Utah, to protect vital access to Bears Ears National Monument. The inholding will feature a unique cultural conservation easement on behalf of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. No development will occur.Lower Cottonwood Wash contains several cliff dwellings and rock art panels including these two Navajo horses overlaid as a palimpsest on top of much earlier Ancestral Puebloan spiral petroglyphs. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

For decades, a county road bisected the private property. Locals merely hopped the fence and walked the road north with the edge of Tank Mesa to the west and Cottonwood Wash on the east. Stunning sandstone cliffs of the Bluff Bench rise hundreds of feet adorned in select places with Ancestral Puebloan and historic Navajo and Ute rock art. I’ve hiked it many times. With binoculars I’ve seen seemingly inaccessible petroglyphs, small cliff dwellings on narrow rock ledges and ancient carvings on boulders.

Within 200 yards or so of the county road, the private property gave way to public Bureau of Land Management land in what is called a “cherry stem” inholding of private property. Despite the beauty and allure of the adjacent sandstone cliffs, the canyon bottom had become a weed-infested, sandy wasteland of cow poop, sprawling barbed wire, rusting farm and ranch detritus, and the remnants of a small wetland. For years, Cottonwood Wash was the historic western edge of the tiny town of Bluff, and historic inscriptions and graffiti attest to the groups and individuals who walked up the canyon and left their names and dates including the sentiment “F--- You BLM.” By the time I got there, someone had sanded off the three letters that came after F.

Lower Cottonwood Wash contains several cliff dwellings and rock art panels including these two Navajo horses overlaid as a palimpsest on top of much earlier Ancestral Puebloan spiral petroglyphs. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

This was a strategic piece of property with water trickling through it, willows and cottonwood trees nearby. Millenia ago, Ancestral Puebloans walked the wash, raised corn, beans and squash, and hunted rabbits, mule deer and probably bighorn sheep coming down for a twilight drink. Farther north there are Pueblo II era (900 to 1150 A.D.) village sites and more cliff dwellings and stone granaries tucked away. Cottonwood Wash itself begins miles to the north in snowmelt off the Abajo or Blue Mountains and carries a springtime seasonal runoff out of the Manti-La Sal National Forest to Bluff where the Wash flows into the San Juan River.

I thought about bushwhacking down the wash, hiking it with a backpack and a water filter, or even using an inflatable kayak in high runoff, but then President Barack Obama in December 2016 declared Bears Ears National Monument. Using the 1906 Antiquities Act, he set aside 1.35 million acres in southeast Utah at the request of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Local and statewide Republican politicians denounced the monument as a “midnight land grab” when in fact it was already public land.

San Juan County, Utah, commissioners have been vehement in their protection of county roads. It came as a surprise when the Cottonwood Wash ranch-owning family asked the county to permanently vacate the road, which dead ends into public land. In a quick vote with little public comment, the Board of County Commissioners agreed. Access closed. More padlocks on the ranch gate. My backpacking plans abandoned.

The irony of that action, though, is now apparent. By quitclaiming the road to the ranching family that owned acreage on both sides of it, the Cottonwood Wash property became valuable for conservation. This isn’t the first ranch sale in San Juan County, Utah, to a conservation buyer. Turns out the largest private property owner in the county is The Nature Conservancy with its 5,200 acre Dug-Out Ranch adjacent to both Canyonlands National Park and Bears Ears National Monument. At only 320 acres, the Cottonwood Wash acquisition seems much more modest, but its location is strategic and its future compelling.

High on a narrow ledge a small stone granary looks out to the east over Cottonwood Wash. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

The new owner, The Wildlands Conservancy, has a stunning environmental record in California. “The Wildlands Conservancy is the nation’s premier land stewardship organization. Wildlands has protected more acres than any other trust in California,” says Peter Galvin, director of programs and a co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. He adds, “We’re excited to be helping The Wildlands Conservancy bring its legendary land conservation work nationwide.”

This represents a sea change for American conservation. In 1956 under David Brower, the Sierra Club also became attracted to the character of canyons and campaigned to stop dams in Echo Park and Split Mountain in the canyon system of Dinosaur National Monument. The club’s actions helped jump-start the modern environmental movement. It propelled the Sierra Club out of the mountains of its home state of California and into the intermountain West. Hikers found new turf to trek in convoluted canyons. River runners rejoiced. The Sierra Club emerged as a national organization with branch chapters. But it doesn’t own land.

Now six decades later, The Wildlands Conservancy is also branching out. It recently purchased Enchanted Rocks, a 30,000-acre ranch on the John Day River in Oregon, along with its inholding in Cottonwood Wash in Utah. They steward 183,000 acres in 24 different preserves. The Nature Conservancy’s Dug-Out Ranch is nestled along Indian Creek in a remote area where last year a flash flood damaged an asphalt road that had just been resurfaced. Cottonwood Wash, on the other hand, is so close to Bluff that students from the newly built Bluff Elementary School can walk to it on a field trip.

“The importance of the Cottonwood Wash property can’t be overstated. The canyon is not only stunning, it cradles hundreds of generations of human history within its walls,” says Tim Peterson of the Grand Canyon Trust. He warns, “Given that it could have been closed off and peppered with luxury homes, we are grateful that it will be forever preserved and comanaged with the Bears Ears tribes.” It’s hard to imagine trophy homes in Bluff, population 260, but indeed just as the ranch purchase is changing the mission and outreach of its new owner, the purchase also represents a new phase for Bluff, settled in 1881 by Mormon pioneers who came over the arduous Hole-in-the-Rock trail. Though in fact, as entrance signs state, Bluff was originally inhabited by Basketmaker people in 650 A.D.

Bluff is evolving from a pass-through community where travelers bought gasoline and perhaps spent the night, into a destination between the Grand Canyon and Arches National Park. Residents and visitors alike do not want the small community to become the frenzied tourist mecca of Moab. Folks campaigning for town council have even turned Moab, home of the Jeep Jamboree, into a verb. Bumper stickers read DON’T MOAB BLUFF.

This key move by The Wildlands Conservancy represents exactly the sort of future that Bluff residents envision – quiet, respectful visitation, on foot. Dave Herrero will manage the preserve. He comments,

“Over the last year, we’ve been working to cultivate relationships in the region and are humbled by the generous support from more than 200 organizations, foundations, and individuals ... A founding belief of ours is that if you have to pay to explore nature’s beauty, you have been dispossessed of your birthright. That’s why all of our preserves are open to the public for free.”

View of the spring-fed wetland on the Cottonwood Wash property near Bluff, Utah recently purchased by The Wildlands Conservancy. (Courtesy of Wildlands Conservancy)

The Wildlands Conservancy has bought the property, and there’s still plenty to do. Landscape restoration junk removal, and trail designation will be a lengthy process. Herrero adds that they will replace barbed with smooth wire, rehang gates, provide a pedestrian access gate and initiate a local trail steward program. He tells me, “We envision a preserve that guarantees Indigenous and public access, protects and restores riparian wildlife habitat, and provides educational and recreational opportunities that will support the vision the Tribes have laid out.” Creating an ecological preserve in Cottonwood Wash will restore the true character of the canyon. With this new paradigm of tribal advice and consultation, canyon country conservation will only increase.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He wrote “Bears Ears: Landscape of Refuge and Resistance.” Gulliford can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.