The Problem with the Utah Monolith

Just the other day, a tall metal “monolith” was discovered in the Utah desert. From what I have learned, this tower of shiny metal was placed in a very out-of-the-way location sometime in 2016 (based on its sudden appearance in Google Earth images in that time frame.) In the ensuing week, this object has created quite a public stir and generated even more theories about its origin.

The first speculation is about its obvious similarity with the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other than this object being stainless steel, triangular, and a completely different size color and texture, yeah, it’s exactly the same. As an allusion or an homage, you can make an argument, but as a copy of the famous sentinel, no.

And then there are those who expound on the 2001 theory and call it an alien artifact. That may draw viewers and clicks, but again, no. It is obviously of terrestrial origin and made well within the means of current Earth science and metallurgy techniques. Close examination reveals the panels are held in place by rivets — hardly extraterrestrial technology! There is nothing mysterious about the making (or even the installation) of this object.

The third- and I feel most reasonable- explanation of this is as a publicity stunt by either an artist or a marketer. If so, this person or group is rather far-sighted and patient. Waiting years for the joke to unfold shows a great deal of restraint…. in this case, it fits well with the concept. This — either joke, art installation, or marketing ploy — is well executed and did its job: it created a ton of public interest. Kudos for a job well done.

Their placement does not look accidental either. It is perfectly placed in an alcove of rock. When the sun hits it right, it is just beautiful.

There’s only one problem….

This was BLM land.

Bordering a National Park.

Having just returned from the site, I can tell you the area is some of the most beautiful I have seen in Utah. The most amazing thing about the Utah Monolith is NOT the monolith, it is the drive in. Just simply spectacular landscapes. And before now, largely unvisited.

So why is this a problem? Because the perpetrators — and I do believe that is the correct term! — used cement saws to drill the base of the monolith into the rock at the installation. They used cement or glue to secure the base into the rock. In effect — no, not in effect, in actuality — they have torn up, vandalized, and defaced our national lands.

Before you start calling me a Karen, hear me out. My overriding concern here is that BLM lands belong to ALL of us (in the United States at least), and are there for all of us to use and to enjoy. That means unmolested. But there are oil drilling platforms on BLM land you may say. And yes, this is true, and many of us feel those also blight the landscape. But those are also permitted. The people who use BLM land for whatever purpose have gone through a permitting process, hearings, and their uses have been found to be legal, and within the scope dictated by law.

That is not the case here. I would have no problem if this were on private land, or this “artist” took out permits, went through the process, and was approved. But that does not seem to be the case.

This person (or more likely group) decided on their own to deface our public lands. And no matter what you think of the installation, cutting into rock with a cement saw is defacing our lands. Period, full stop. They are stealing from ALL of us for their personal publicity stunt. And this I find highly offensive.

But this is just a few minor cuts in a rock in a place no one goes to you might think. Fine. Or maybe you say, “Dave, think of how much joy this monolith has given; surely that is worth a couple of minor cuts in the rock no one cares about.”

If you are of the opinion that the ends justify the means here, tell me exactly where that line is. Can you cut into rock in an area that only sees 10 or fewer visitors a month? Or is it now permissible to use cement to fix a foreign object into public lands if it will generate 100,000 clicks on The Verge’s website? Or can you change public lands just simply because your intent is artistic? Or because you want to?

Simply: no. The line is you do not deface public property. Ever. Period. This placement of a monolith into the rock is no different than lighting a fire underneath Delicate Arch (as Michael Fatali did in 2000), or toppling a hoodoo in Goblin Valley (like the “good” Boy Scouts Glenn Tuck Taylor and David Benjamin Hall did in 2013). That the result is “art” is no acceptable excuse for vandalism of public lands. Certainly not one I am willing to consider or tolerate. Just as we don’t tolerate what Fatali, Taylor, and Hall did, we should put our foot down here. Vandalization in any manner or form of our public lands is an offense to every American and should be something none of us ever excuse or sanction.

This “monolith” does not belong here on public lands. Whether you think it is an artistic expression or an eyesore, it was placed on public land without permission or consent and involved cutting into a national resource in much the same as graffiti or the aforementioned vandalisms. It should be treated as such. Without a permit, and without any official sanction, it should be removed immediately. If and when the perps are found, they should face court action. Otherwise, what message are we sending?

If there is any good in this, I would say it is that it got me out exploring this part of Utah I have to date not seen. And it is INCREDIBLE. As breathtaking as many other parts of Canyonlands National Park (if not more so). But this does not excuse disfiguring public lands. Am I a Karen? Maybe. You can call me that, and you can disagree with me. But I just cannot see how you can have any line except NONE when it comes to discussing how much we allow visitors to vandalize our public lands.

Editor’s note: The monolith was removed by an unknown party on the evening of November 27th and subsequently replaced with a pyramid.

“While the monolith has better craftsmanship than graffiti, this is still vandalism,” the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts tells KSL. “It irreversibly altered the natural environment on public lands. While the monolith is interesting, we cannot condone vandalism of any type.”

About the author: Dave Koch is a commercial and landscape photographer who has been named Utah’s Best of State Nature Photographer the last four years running. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Mr. Koch avidly seeks to protect our wilderness and is a Community Advocate for the Southwest region of Nature First. You can find more of his work on his website.