Located on the Arizona-Utah border on Highway 163 in the northern part of the Navajo Nation, Monument Valley hosts over 200,000 visitors a year, who come to savor its red mesas and sandy deserts.
But to appreciate the majestic rocks, buttes, and remnants of sandstone layers that once covered the area, tourists must leave the road and drive or hike dirt tracks in the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
Doing that can be exciting and rewarding. It can also be dangerous — to visitors, plants, animals, and valley residents, according to Harold Simpson, chairperson of the Monument Valley Tour Operators Association.
Rough roads pose a risk for visitors who don’t own four-wheel-drive vehicles. A lack of official trails makes getting lost or hurt in rugged terrain a concern. Gasoline fumes and dust sicken residents and livestock.
“Our land is being impacted,” Simpson explains in a phone conversation from his office in Goulding, Ariz., headquarters for the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
“When you drive in a hundred yards or so (off-road), you can actually see a lot of dust and muds covering the vegetation. Half of it is alive and half of it isn’t.”
Generally, valley residents welcome visitors who come through on their way to or from Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Page, Ariz., Bryce Canyon, or Arches and Zion national parks, Simpson says.
At the same time, locals realize they must protect their land, which actually isn’t a valley but a broad, flat desert. “Once you destroy it, it’s hard to regain that again,” he says.
The Monument Valley Tribal Park opened in 1958. For decades, visitors have made their own roads driving off the highway, or carved their names into rocks.
“I’m a native to Monument Valley.” Simpson’s voice rises with frustration. “When you see the desecration of your own land, and you know when you wake up all you see is this wind and trash everywhere, you try to help and pick up the trash. But more tourists coming in, it becomes tiresome.”
The Monument Valley Tour Operators Association incorporated three years ago to address the problem with the Navajo Nation. Now MVTOA has formed The Friends of Monument Valley to help restore the land and improve the lives of the 14 families who have grazing rights and homes in the area.
“Monument Valley is. . . promoted and marketed well into the tourism world. How can we merge tourism and culture to accommodate the people who live there?” Simpson asks, adding that Monument Valley’s residents live without infrastructure, running water, or indoor plumbing.
As The Friends of Monument Valley’s acting president, he hopes to draw a variety of people and expertise into the organization to assess and define the valley’s needs.
Anyone is welcome to join, from botanists and biologists to lawyers, media professionals, and lovers of the outdoors.
The Friends will work with the Navajo Nation and federal, state, and local governmental agencies. “We’re at the very start of this thing.”
Simpson also hopes the Friends will find a way to limit tourist access to areas off U.S. 163, because visitors curious about Native American ways often wander onto private property, inadvertently disturbing people, startling animals, and damaging vegetation.
Some visitors believe their Tribal Park entrance fee of $5 allows them access to homes and farmsteads. “We need to understand [that] there are limitations to what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Aided by the Friends of Monument Valley, the tour operators propose training and certifying guides and artisans to escort people off the roads, show visitors how to be mindful of the environment, and explain petroglyphs, pictographs, formations, arts and crafts, and activities encountered during a tour.
“They’ll benefit from interpretation,” says Simpson. “Right now there’s a brochure of the park. That’s all.”
Monument Valley residents will also benefit, by receiving a portion of the revenue generated by tours to improve their property and homes, and from reduced automobile dust and fumes. “Fewer vehicles will be going through there, with the help of the tour-company touring people.”
The Monument Valley Tour Operators Association and the Friends of Monument Valley also want to educate visitors on how to approach Native Americans, and Native Americans on how to approach visitors.
Tour operators learn etiquette at professional seminars and conferences. “We need to set up training programs. . . a plan to take to business owners, vendors and general residents,” Simpson says. “We need to explain ourselves, not the Hollywood version of Native Americans. ”
Visitors need to receive instruction on the correct way to interact with Monument Valley residents, some of whom speak little or no English. Those who do prefer not to explain the private aspects of Navajo culture, but if asked in a nice way, will summarize general aspects.
“[People are] shy. Don’t follow them [with a camera]. Politely ask to take a picture, and it’ll be either yes or no,” says Simpson. “We’re human, and visitors are human too. Customer service is very important on both sides.”
The Friends of Monument Valley have received positive feedback from the public and tour operators in other parts of the country, who are emphasizing environment-friendly travel.
Simpson hopes to launch a Friends of Monument Valley web site by the end of April.
“Our passion is to set some ground rules for the area, and policy development. It’s a beautiful place and we need to preserve it down the line for many years to come, he said.
“If they can do it at Bryce Canyon and Zion, why not Monument Valley?”