Obama should listen to Native Americans to preserve Bears Ears

Thursday , May 19, 2016 - 11:19 AM2 comments

MICHAEL CUMMING, Guest Columnist

The five Native American tribes calling on President Obama to protect 1.9 million acres of their ancestral homelands as the Bears Ears National Monument say that it will bring healing to the land, plants, animals and to the collective human spirit.

As the founder of Operation Climb On, a therapeutic climbing program for veterans, I can testify firsthand about the healing power of Bears Ears.

I served almost twelve years as a military infantryman, including a couple of combat deployments to Iraq. When I left active duty, I faced a lot of the issues other veterans confront when they return to civilian life. I fell into alcohol abuse, lost my family and became suicidal because of the memories that haunted me night and day.

At my lowest point, with the help of a counselor, I discovered that climbing — especially out in nature with my fellow veterans — helped me to heal from the trauma of war. When I realized that getting out on the rock was a lifeline for other veterans as well, I created Operation Climb On.

We use the same guideline that worked for me – spending time in the great outdoors with a group of veterans climbing and camping together.

Recently, I took a trip with fellow veterans, including one who is Navajo, down to the Bears Ears. I knew a slot canyon, one of many in this amazing landscape of mesa, mountain, cliff, and canyon, which was perfect for canyoneering.

We spent the first day strapped into our climbing harnesses, stepping back over sheer cliff edges into space, learning once again to put trust in a friend anchoring the rope above us, as we descended a serpentine canyon at times only as wide as our shoulders.

The next day we roamed a rolling sandstone mesa, guided by a local professional archaeologist, dropping down into hidden canyons to marvel at ancient cliff dwellings and images of animals and other cryptic figures etched and painted on to the cliff walls.

In the evenings, we simply hung out around the campfire, listening to each other’s stories, as an almost unbelievable number of stars studded a pitch black sky.

Once again, the combination of pristine natural beauty, climbing, and veterans, enhanced by the absolute wonder of exploring age-old stone villages and rock art worked its alchemical magic. The veterans returned home reconnected and rejuvenated.

Just consider these reflections my fellow veterans shared with me after the trip: 

“I was reminded that climbing is all about you on the wall trusting a friend, just like you did in combat, instead of bottling up all your fears. That’s how we lose guys. They bottle it up and the lid blows off. A trip like this to Bears Ears actually saves lives.”

“It sounds simple and it is. But too often veterans tend to get isolated. We lose our sense of community. Climbing and camping together, especially in a place like this, restores community.”

“I just want to see this land preserved so that I can return here with friends and family and show them what I have experienced, and so future generations can come and have the same experience too. That would be pretty amazing.”

The Native American tribes asking President Obama to protect Bears Ears are right that a national monument offers an opportunity for healing. Veterans are among those who would benefit deeply.

Veterans have given so much for our country. Protecting Bears Ears would do so much for them. Operation Climb On hopes that President Obama acts soon.

Michael Cumming is a combat veteran living in Salt Lake City who founded Operation Climb On, a therapeutic climbing program for veterans.

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