Gustavo Ovando-Montejo. [Courtesy photo]

How would you make a map of land use issues across the Bears Ears National Monument? This is what Gustavo Ovando-Montejo, an assistant professor at Utah State University Blanding, is working on: he uses social geography to understand landscapes and how people interact with them.

Science Moab: Can you speak a little about the social side of geography?

Ovando-Montejo: The social side really collides with the physical world. In order to understand what humans do and how they use the landscape, we also need to know how the landscape works and understand the physical properties of it. Weather patterns, climatic patterns, vegetation, and temperature all influence what people do in certain areas. If we are to create a better world, without inequalities, we need to understand the specific perspectives that people take from the landscape. We cannot really do that if we do not have a basic knowledge of how societies work and how the physical environment works.

Science Moab: What makes Bears Ears an interesting place to look at the social geography?

Ovando-Montejo: For most people, the Bears Ears is not only about the buttes, this iconic landscape and land formation, but also the greater area of the Bears Ears, recently dedicated as a national monument. It is extremely compelling, not only because of the beauty of this landscape, but also because humans have occupied this area for thousands of years. We have artifacts that archaeologists can date back to at least ten thousand years ago, which is incredible. Also, it has one of the densest amounts of archaeological sites anywhere in the United States that we can trace back to tribes in Native nations that are living right now in the area. The beauty and the archaeology in human uses of this landscape make it a beautiful laboratory to understand human issues at large.

Science Moab: What are some of the issues you’re dealing with?

Ovando-Montejo: The past six years have been incredibly charged politically: first of all, being set as a national monument in the first place, then being reduced in size, and now back to its original size. Within all of this political discussion about the Bears Ears, there is also a deeper question of understanding the space as sacred. For a lot of Native American people, this is a sacred landscape, as sacred as a church. That creates conflict with the modern world as people try to extract resources from sacred landscapes. It creates a difference in the way that people want to use it: people might want to use it to extract resources and generate wealth, and other people might view and keep that as a sacred place that shouldn’t be touched. We’re trying to get a broad range of opinions: what Native Americans think about the Bears Ears National Monument, and what white residents in Blanding think about the monument. 

We can see that this is not a black and white issue, where the white people are bad because they want to do extraction on this sacred land and the Native Americans are the good people who want to preserve and keep it pristine without any human interference. It’s more complex than that. [To some people,] Bears Ears National Monument is a good idea, perhaps, but it also brings a lot of drawbacks that are not in the best interest of the landscape itself. We have also found that there are a lot of non-native residents that want to see religious beliefs protected, want to see the land protected, but they also want these spaces to be used to generate jobs. They don’t necessarily see it as a destruction of the landscape but as another opportunity to increase jobs. We have also been seeing that a lot of people, especially the non-native population, don’t just want to see the destruction of the Bears Ears with a bunch of oil and gas extraction points. They want to see that the beauty of the landscape is protected and preserved.

Science Moab: How do you see your work as widely applicable?

Ovando-Montejo: This research is applicable in a bunch of different places where there is a conflict between what people value, what society values, and resource extraction. In two hundred or five hundred years, how will we view these issues? How will people in the future view what we do right now? For example, natural resource extraction generates employment, wealth, and a bunch of benefits for societies, but they’re generating these things for a limited amount of time. So when we’re trying to understand how we use the landscape in a way that is creating wealth, jobs, and socio-economic benefits for society, if we do not understand what we’re doing in the long term, then we will continue to pollute the landscape, jobs will run out as extraction resources leave, and nothing can be sustainable. 

It is worth mentioning that a lot of resource extraction is short-sighted. For example, resource extraction in an area like the Bears Ears, like the uranium boom, perhaps lasted 60 years. After those resources are extracted and people made money, they often leave huge environmental issues around the landscape. Those issues can last far longer than the benefits that they brought to the community in those 60 years. So if we do not understand how to integrate both perspectives, how to generate jobs, wealth, and money in a sustainable way, then we will continue to experience resource extraction and the people that are left ultimately have to deal with the environmental consequences. This is where research and science go hand in hand: we can still get resources from the landscape and make it work in a way that is sustainable for both the landscapes and for the societies that depend on those resources.

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