SALT LAKE CITY — Gone but not forgotten.
That’s possibly one way to describe a metal monolith that mysteriously appeared in southern Utah before it vanished over the weekend. And it’s a potential problem for public land officials.
The monolith led to a storm of worldwide attention and fans eager to visit the site. It also provided plenty of jokes for social media and late-night TV show hosts. Even though it was removed by an unknown figure after just a few days in the limelight, federal land officials say the monolith’s legacy is no laughing matter.
It led to damage of public land within the surreal red rock landscape it was found in. In addition, a possible copycat case was reported in Europe on Monday.
The damage from the Utah monolith
The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office announced over the weekend that it didn’t have enough resources to investigate the appearance and disappearance of the monolith.
Rachel Wootton, public affairs specialist for the Utah office of the Bureau of Land Management, said Monday that the mystery remains an ongoing investigation.
The only certainty of the Utah monolith is the bizarre structure adds yet another example in a growing list of defacement on public lands that has prompted concern from local and federal agencies in recent years.
It’s why the BLM didn’t provide the location of the structure when it was discovered earlier this month and why officials advised people to refrain from visiting it in San Juan County after internet sleuths figured out its location. Among the reasons they don’t want people to flock to the site is that it is out of cellphone range and difficult to reach without the proper vehicles. So if a medical emergency happened or a vehicle broke down, it would be difficult to get help.
The also agency reported that visitors parked their vehicles on vegetation and left behind human waste during their voyage to the site. Some vehicles were even towed away from the area, as driving off designated roads and trails on BLM land within the Monticello Field Office is illegal.
On top of all of that, it’s also illegal for anyone to install any form of art on federal land without going through the proper measures first.
“We follow ethical laws like the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Any installation or things like that go through those processes and have to be approved by the BLM before installation or else they are illegal,” Wootton said.
“We discourage people from doing that and discourage folks from installing their own monoliths,” she continued. “We want people to recreate responsibly on public lands and that includes packing out what you bring in. That’s one of the core principles of ‘Leave No Trace’ and we strongly encourage people to follow that.”
Officials said they still want people to avoid the monolith site, which was still a draw even after the monolith was taken.
Wootton added that the BLM’s role is to encourage people to follow the law, although it appears their message is too late — at least for one country.
While Utah land officials haven’t found another case quite like the monolith found in San Juan County, the Daily Mail and other global news outlets reported Monday that a similar structure was discovered in Romania over the weekend.
The structure was reportedly found on a famous hillside in the country not far from the Petrodova Dacian Fortress — an archaeological landmark built sometime between 82 BC and 106 AD.
Much like the Utah structure, it was installed without permission from land officials, according to the news outlet. It also remains a mystery as to who placed it there.
A growing problem on Utah public lands
The monolith was, for the most part, a new form of a growing problem on state and federal land within Utah. The land vandalism may not have been seen as severe as graffiti or other intentional landscape damage, but it was still land vandalism.
Earlier this year, the Utah Division of State History announced plans for a program aimed to educate visitors of vandalism after an alarming number of cases over the past few years. Damage to Danger Cave near Wendover in 2019, where historic items were stolen from it, was one of the more alarming examples.
Issues have happened on public land even after archeologists stressed the problem. For example, someone painted blue squares at Zion National Park this summer on Kolob Terrace red rock. The paint was mysteriously cleaned up — for the most part — shortly after it was discovered.
Wootton said that it’s important people interested in public art follow the “appropriate mechanisms” to pursue that interest with BLM approval before doing anything on public land. The same goes for all public land.
For this reason, officials from the Utah Division of Arts & Heritage offered a scathing rebuke of the monolith on social media before the monument was taken down. They point out that no matter how you view the monolith, it was still damaging to public land.
“While the monolith has better craftsmanship than graffiti, this is still vandalism,” officials from the agency tweeted in a thread. “It irreversibly altered the natural environment on public lands. While the monolith is interesting, we cannot condone vandalism of any type.”