It’s been nearly a month since we last heard anything about the mysterious monolith in Lockhart Basin, Utah. To recap: it was discovered on November 23 while wildlife biologists were conducting a survey of bighorn sheep, soon attracted a flurry of tourists, and then disappeared four days later. It was removed at night by four self-described adventurers and members of the Moab slackline and BASE-jumping scene: Andy Lewis, Sylvan Christensen, Homer Manson, and an anonymous companion.
But the monolith is back, mostly intact and now in the custody of the Bureau of Land Management after a torrent of death threats, a federal investigation, and the launch of a nonprofit. Yet the question still remains: Who put it there to begin with?
First, the investigation.
After the monolith’s removal, the U.S. District Attorney’s office in Utah opened an investigation looking into who took the piece and who put it there in the first place. Christensen had already posted a video to TikTok claiming responsibility for the theft, so answering the first question was easy. But holding on to the monolith while the second half of the investigation was underway would be considered an obstruction of justice. “The idea is, because someone abandoned art and knew a location, and for whatever reason that caused environmental damage, they have to investigate who put that in there,” Lewis (who is also known by his nickname, Sketchy Andy) told Outside on a video call. “So they need to look at it and see if they can find clues.” Following a cooperating agreement and the involvement of attorneys, it was determined that the men would return the monolith to the BLM at an established date and time and would not be prosecuted or investigated further.
This is standard procedure for the BLM. Essentially, anything that happens on BLM land is the business of the BLM, even an investigation into property that wasn’t the agency’s to begin with. And it doesn’t want to set a precedent that people can just go out onto public lands and take things away. This raises a greater philosophical question of who art belongs to, as well as how the BLM will treat attempted art on public lands in the future.
BLM officials wouldn’t comment on any specific details of the investigation. “We understand the public has a strong interest in the status and outcome of any investigations into the installation and removal of the illegally installed structure known as the ‘monolith,’” a BLM spokesperson wrote in an email. “We will notify the public when we have information to share.”
According to the four slackliners, the decision to steal it was an obvious one. “There were a lot of conversations surrounding the monolith, like who put it in there,” said Lewis. “The whole thing just unfortunately cascaded. It’s because it’s, like, a symbol, right?”
A symbol of what is unclear. A symbol that this has been a tough year and we all needed something else to focus on? A symbol that we should stop and consider our impact on public lands? A symbol that no one upstages Sketchy Andy in his own backyard?
But the cascade Lewis mentioned isn’t an understatement. In the days following the monolith’s discovery, thousands of people poured into Moab, a small town on the edge of the desert already buckling under the weight of tourism. Copycat monoliths showed up in Romania, California, and New Zealand, only to disappear soon after. On Christensen’s Instagram feed, shortly after the monolith’s removal, he wrote, “We removed the Utah Monolith because there are clear precedents for how we share and standardize the use of our public lands … the mystery was the infatuation and we want to use this time to unite people behind the real issue here—we are losing our public lands—things like this don’t help.”
Lewis referred to the removal of the monument as a “chaotic-neutral” judgement call he and his friends made. “It obviously can’t stay there,” said Lewis, describing their thought process. “It just can’t, because it became a destination. We obviously don’t want to take it—it’s not ours. And we don’t want to destroy it, because it is art. Our decision as a crew was that the chaotic-neutral decision was to remove it as fully intact as possible.”
They also said that they started hearing rumors of other plans to steal it. “We heard from other people who were like, ‘Oh good job, we were right behind you,’” said Manson, who was born in Moab. “We literally passed them, and they were the next people coming to take it down.” Still, in their haste, the group lost the top of the monolith, which was already loose from numerous visitors attempting to pry it off. “We want whoever has the missing piece to return it,” said Lewis, who stored the monolith in pieces at a friend’s house and in another undisclosed location until he was forced to return it to the BLM.
On Sunday, Lewis posted a video of the monolith, gleaming in the sunlight of what looks to be a backyard, followed with a lengthy post about the reasons they removed it and the ways in which a monolith is different from the slacklines, climbing bolts, and space nets that he and his friends regularly erect in the desert. (Among other things, the crew has been accused of taking a hypocritical stance on human impacts to the desert.) “Everything has its place,” the post read. “This is what conservation is about. It was a tragedy to remove the Utah Monolith—as it was beautiful; and we do apologize.”
The backlash surrounding the monolith’s removal has been relentless. The men received death threats and calls to the businesses where they each worked. “I had a guy call me and just breathe into the phone,” said Lewis. “People saying they were going to hunt us down, they were going to end us.”
Still, the men stood by their convictions, citing Leave No Trace principles. “Andy put it good earlier,” said Christensen. “We’re all basically adventurists and public-land users in this area and through that have gained a knowledge of the misuse and the ignorance and some of the problems that we’re facing.”
Which brings us to the nonprofit. “I think we decided on a name,” said Christensen. “The Desert Canyon Collective.” Their goal now, and their hope for the future as a result of the monolith craziness, is to create awareness around ethical recreation on public lands, as well as to help other area nonprofits already dedicated to the issue. They also said they’ll be conducting their own cleanups of desert trash, which Christensen and Manson described as anything from downed airplanes and abandoned cars to broken glass along the river. “[These are] places we use regularly,” said Manson.
And what about the monolith? The investigation into its origins is still ongoing, and thus far, no one has legitimately come forward to claim it. (Though some are attempting to capitalize on the cultural phenomenon.) But once that concludes, the men who stole it hope that the whole experience will generate a conversation around designated places for art on public lands and, more broadly, around shared use and good behavior in these places. Christensen referred to a gentlemen’s agreement to place it in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah’s Red Butte Garden. “We took it out because we wanted to have the voice and the power to gift people the perspective that they need,” said Lewis. Christensen nodded and added, “We didn’t destroy the art. We kind of changed its direction and made it a bigger thing that surrounds environmental awareness and ethical land recreation.”
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Lead Photo: Utah Department of Public Safety, Associated Press