The Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah has many claims to fame. It’s the sacred home to five Native American tribes, a popular spot for rock climbers and outdoor enthusiasts from around the U.S., and the location of tens of thousands of archaeological sites.
But despite Bears Ears’ importance, which earned it a national monument designation just weeks before President Barack Obama left office, the area is still threatened due to fossil fuel interests and politics. Now, a new series of interactive, virtual reality short films will take you there, so you can explore the landscape for yourself — and even help save it.
Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear company known for its environmental activism, has teamed up with Google to create This Is Bears Ears National Monument, an “interactive film experience” with 360-degree videos, immersive visuals and Street View maps of the area.
Combining Patagonia’s conservation and preservation efforts with Google’s 360 technology, 10 short films tell stories of tribal leaders and athletes, and why they want you to take action for Bears Ears.
The site ultimately urges viewers to contact Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and tell him to “keep our public lands in public hands and defend Bears Ears National Monument.”
The new website is part of Patagonia’s long-standing mission to help protect the environment, and furthers the company’s advocacy for Bears Ears since 2013. Like many of its efforts around the world, Patagonia has focused on grassroots partnerships and Indigenous leadership in Utah, working closely with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, Friends of Cedar Mesa and Utah Diné Bikéyah.
Their fight came to a head earlier this year. Soon after Obama designated Bears Ears’ iconic twin buttes as a national monument, protecting the 1.3 million acres of land that surrounds them, the Utah legislature put forth a resolution to ask President Donald Trump to rescind the designation. As the Guardian noted, the decision reflected a larger movement by Republicans in Utah and Congress to transfer federal land to states and private owners — a broad push for more oil, gas and mining development.
“It’s also a moral issue for us around protecting the last bits of wilderness.”
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard penned an open letter to Utah Governor Gary Herbert in January, scolding him for “denigrating our public lands … and trying to sell them off to the highest bidder.” In retaliation, the company pulled out of a big outdoor trade show hosted by the state.
Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia, said she joined a call with the CEOs of REI, North Face and others to speak to Herbert, hoping for assurance that he would reconsider. That didn’t happen. In fact, one week later Herbert signed an additional resolution shrinking the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, another Utah national monument designated in 1996.
“It was kind of unbelievable,” Marcario said. “It just feels like an all-out assault on public lands by the Utah legislature and the Governor … Obviously we care about public lands as an industry, but it’s also a moral issue for us around protecting the last bits of wilderness.”
Patagonia didn’t expect the area to be threatened after Obama’s designation. This Is Bears Ears National Monument began as a celebration of the region, not a way to galvanize officials and the public around saving it. But recent efforts to thwart the protection of Bears Ears changed the overall nature of the project.
“The call to action really came out of necessity, because of the attacks by the legislature and governor,” Marcario said. “And we wanted to get more people just understanding the issue, understanding what’s at stake, and coming into the dialogue with us and the environmental fight to protect these public lands.”
That’s why, to reach a wider audience, Patagonia is promoting the multimedia website with a digital advertisement on NewYorkTimes.com and on PBS NewsHour — the first time the company has created a TV advertisement.
When you first visit This Is Bears Ears, you have the option to learn about the cultures and heritage embedded within the national monument. You can hear about the history of the area’s Native tribes from Willie Grayeyes, a member of the Navajo Mountain community; click through walls adorned with petroglyphs explained by Hopi archaeologist Lyle Balenquah; and learn about Bears Ears’ sacred properties from Zuni medicine man Octavius Seowtewa.
“My hope is that Bears Ears National Monument will bring healing to the present Navajo people, and those who have passed on, and all other Native Americans will hopefully be healed,” Grayeyes says in the video above.
The second section of the site focuses on sport, highlighting outdoor enthusiasts like climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kitty Calhoun, bikepackers Andrew Burr and Steve Fassbinder, and trail runner Luke Nelson.
Each video, and the site as a whole, is optimized for mobile, headphones and VR headsets. You can watch on your phone or tablet, or you can use a headset like Google Cardboard.
For Marcario, the interactive aspects of This Is Bears Ears National Monument allow for more engagement, no matter where you are. The 360-degree videos allow you to explore the region, even if you can’t afford to travel to Utah and see it in-person.
“It highlights the specialness of these areas,” she said about the technology. “I think it also gives people a sense of the grandeur and the beauty of these lands, and hopefully gets them to love them as much as we do — and as I know the people of Utah do — and will want to protect them.”
While this film experience is centered on Bears Ears, it’s not the only monument in the U.S. that’s threatened. Marcario also mentioned Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which Gov. Paul LePage wants to rescind, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has pushed for oil and gas drilling.
“Public lands from coast to coast are, I think, at stake right now,” Marcario said. “We will continue to be fighting these fights around public lands, and we’ll continue to shine light and tell stories around these beautiful places that deserve protection.”
And, she added, Patagonia will continue to use new technologies and tools to do so. Meanwhile, she’s excited and hopeful to see both the outdoor industry and the movement as a whole motivated to make a difference.
“I think the whole environmental movement right now is really — well, they’re woke, as my young cousin would say,” Marcario adds laughing. “I think everybody is alert and galvanizing their resources, and getting ready to fight the good fight for public lands for generations to come.”
You can check out the full This Is Bears Ears National Monument experience here.