What: Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom discuss “Voices from Bears Ears: Seeking Common Ground on Sacred Land”

When: 6 p.m. May 31

Where: Roundabout Books, 900 NW Mt. Washington Drive, Suite 110, Bend

Cost: Free

Contact: roundaboutbookshop.com or 541-306-6564

Journalist Rebecca Robinson and photographer Stephen Strom didn’t set out to take a deep dive into one of the most controversial conservation issues in the American West. But the granddaughter/grandfather duo’s complementary books, “Voices from Bears Ears: Seeking Common Ground on Sacred Land” and “Bears Ears: Views from a Sacred Land,” do just that.

“Voices from Bears Ears” illuminates the ongoing national debate over the establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah’s San Juan County through the stories of 20 people of different races, faiths and political persuasions. Each is invested in the outcome of the monument fight. “Views from a Sacred Land” is a larger format coffee table book that showcases Strom’s photography of the region’s landscapes and sacred sites.

Some of those interviewed in “Voices from Bears Ears” fought to earn permanent protected status for the area, while others fought against it, believing the effort was a federal land grab that threatened their economic future in one of the poorest counties in Utah. After talking to more than 70 stakeholders, Robinson and Strom discovered significant common ground between their competing visions for the future of the region.

Robinson and Strom will discuss their books during an event May 31 in Bend. They will also present audio recordings of some of the people featured in the book and a slide show of Strom’s striking photographs.

In 2015, Robinson and Strom decided to collaborate on a book planned as a tribute to Strom’s wife and Robinson’s grandmother, Karen, who died in 2014. They initially envisioned the book would extol the beauty of Southeastern Utah’s Bears Ears region, which their families had visited many times over several decades.

Along with the towering 8,500-foot-high twin buttes that give Bears Ears its name, the desert region is filled with rugged and starkly beautiful ridges, buttes, mesas and canyons sculpted over millennia by wind and water. It is also home to the highest concentration of Native American archaeological sites in North America.

In 2015, when Robinson and Strom began their research for the book, they learned about a new Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition of five Native American tribes petitioning for a national monument. They decided to make that movement the focus of their project.

“Initially, it was conceived as a more traditionally conservation-minded love letter to the landscape, akin to a coffee-table book with plea to protect,” Robinson said. “But as we went along and discovered how rich the human story was, we decided the approach we wanted to take would be more neutral.”

Part of that change in focus was due to Robinson’s journalistic training. But it also came about because as she and Strom interviewed numerous people who supported and opposed the proposed monument, they realized that despite the historic divisions and heated rhetoric between the two groups, residents and activists on both sides of the issue all shared a deep cultural and spiritual connection to the landscape.

“We found that people who haven’t shared a lot in terms of land stewardship or political affiliation used very similar language to describe their relationship to this place,” Robinson said. “Natives who feel a strong spiritual connection to their ancestral lands and Mormons who feel they were called by God to establish a livelihood and community in the region, all see the land as sacred. The phrase, ‘The land is who we are,’ came up a number of times.”

The need for civil discourse about the monument has only grown over the past three years. In late 2016, President Obama designated 1.35 million acres of land as part of the Bears Ears National Monument. But in December 2017, President Trump reduced the size of the monument by 85%. That decision faces a number of legal challenges that could take years to wind their way through the courts.

“We heard from some people whose quotes are featured in this book who said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this about that other person and it’s helped me understand them in a new way,’” Robinson said. “So perhaps we’re helping people in Southwest Utah understand each other better and find some common ground.”

“We hoped leaders of all stripes, in both the conservation and political communities, would pick up the book and realize there was some real nuance to discussing public lands use issues,” Strom said. “I don’t imagine a book will change the world, but it can start a few conversations and hopefully a few of them will bear fruit.”

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