This Thanksgiving I am grateful for something I didn’t fully understand that I have been entrusted with: America’s public lands. As I have learned about these vast stretches of wildlands across the west, one can’t help but also appreciate their bounty and take pride in this shared asset. 

Given the current political climate, I am also so grateful for the reminder that while we can’t agree on everything, if we focus on what we can agree upon, we can move forward. A recent trip to Bears Ears National Monument and the dwellings near Bluff, Utah was a perfect setting for witnessing the power of shared mission and gaining an understanding of the diversity of people, organizations and interests that can come together to make great things happen.

Adding to this bounty was the chance to reunite with my dear friend and Conservation Lands Foundation Senior Program Director Charlotte Overby. For years Charlotte has worked on and talked about Bears Ears and I, being a busy urban technology consultant, never slowed down enough to fully grasp the concepts and the mission of her work and the special place Bears Ears had in that story.

Charlotte always told me, “you need to get out on the land to understand it.” Only then, she said, could I fully understand Conservation Lands Foundation’s motto of  RESPECT–PROTECT–EXPLORE.  

So with a handful of other masked guests, Conservation Lands Foundation’s Individual Giving Director Beth Poole, and seasoned guides and community leaders, I slowed down (COVID had helped) and took the time to Explore—breath the air, walk the trails and more deeply appreciate Bears Ears, a marvel of nature, culture, policy and community.

My first teacher was Vaughn Hadenfeldt, Board Member of Friends of Cedar Mesa. While Vaughn, a veteran guide, was intensely knowledgeable about the history and the remarkable petroglyphs we visited, what struck me more was his noticeable discomfort with the crowds that we encountered in places he once knew to be more remote. 

With COVID, more people than ever had come to this place, which required herculean efforts by Friends of Cedar Mesa to install port-a-potties and fence off Indigenous cultural structures from climbing kids and instagrammers seeking perfect selfies. The need to Protect these places and provide some level of management was immediately evident when we couldn’t find space at a jammed, pull-off parking area at a trailhead six miles down a treacherous dirt road. 

Josh Ewing, Executive Director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, explained the scope of Tribal nations and organizations that had come together to create Bears Ears and the legislative journey to bring President Obama to declare it a national monument in 2016. What surprised me most about Friends of Cedar Mesa was their resilience in the face of the Trump administration's roll back and reduction of the monument by 85%, and Josh’s ability to re-frame the issue from good vs. evil to a grateful story of what is still possible. 

Friends of Cedar Mesa’s Visit with Respect campaign is making a real impact in this under-managed landscape. I noticed their smart signage dotting the landscape, reminding visitors to “leave all artifacts, steer clear of walls, and don’t touch the rocks. 

The word Respect took on so much more meaning when we hiked with Angelo Baca of Utah Diné Bikéyah to  Moon House and the Procession Panel. Angelo explained the remarkable Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition (Ute, Zuni, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and Diné) that came together to call on President Obama to protect their ancestral homelands. I found it tremendously empowering to know that these Tribes, who do not always get along, came together on this important issue. 

More importantly, Angelo offered a much deeper understanding of Bears Ears as not just trails and archaeology, but as ancestral homes of Indigenous peoples who have continuously occupied these lands for generations. Angelo’s connection to the land and sensitivity to the spirits of his ancestors that for him still inhabit these places was so heartfelt and respectful that it changed my perspective and awareness about exploring new places. 

Bears Ears offers a chance to choose your own adventure and that has given me (a nature rookie) the confidence and appetite to make Exploring our public lands a priority. 

I’m thankful for a few days in this magical place, to make and renew friendships, and to have a chance to meet so many dedicated individuals and community-based organizations that so beautifully put aside their differences to protect this enduring place.

I’m grateful that Bears Ears provided such a magnificent backdrop to reconnect with my dear friend Charlotte and to finally truly understand the Conservation Lands Foundation’s  important work and her dedication to its mission.

Please join me in supporting the Conservation Lands Foundation.

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About the Author: Elizabeth “Bitsy” Osder (above, left) is a Los Angeles- based media and technology consultant who grew up in New Jersey along the grimy shore of the Hudson River directly across from the New York skyline and fancied herself an urban explorer, until her friend Charlotte introduced her to “the nature” in her late 20’s. Over the years Charlotte has shown Bitsy the wild’s of the Ozarks, trails across the U.S. west and Spain’s Camino de Santiago (photo above, 2001). In return, Charlotte has learned to navigate a subway map, taken elevators to amazing views and explore the crazy people and places that sit below the caverns of the Manhattan skyline.