By Zak Podmore
The first majority-Native American commission in San Juan County history is showing no aversion to controversial issues. At their second meeting since being seated last month, newly elected commissioners Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes–along with incumbent Bruce Adams–held a well-attended work session in Monticello on Tuesday to discuss resolutions in support of Bears Ears National Monument.
The previous commission was unanimously opposed to Bears Ears, and in 2016 and 2017 it paid $590,000 for legal research into the Obama administration’s decision to designate the monument under the Antiquities Act. In late 2017, then Democratic Commissioner Rebecca Benally opened for President Trump in Salt Lake City before he signed an executive order to reduce the 1.3 million-acre monument by 85 percent. Republican commissioners Adams and Phil Lyman were also in attendance and applauded Trump’s action. Shortly afterwards, five Native American tribes and a host of environmental groups sued Trump over the monument cuts, and the county later moved to intervene in the suit on behalf of the Trump administration.
All of these factors came into play at the meeting on Tuesday when Maryboy, who like Grayeyes campaigned on a pro-Bears Ears message in the commission elections last year, read off five resolutions to be considered by the commission. One would ask the county attorney, Kendall Laws, to “prepare a comprehensive inventory of all civil litigation in which the county is a party,” including the litigation related to Bears Ears. Another resolution proposes to reverse all previous resolutions made in opposition to the monument, and a third resolution would end the county’s attempts to intervene in the Bears Ears lawsuits.
Members of the public gave comments on the proposals for over an hour. Blanding Mayor Joe Lyman presented resolutions from the Blanding City Council in opposition to the monument designation and in support of the reductions.
Another Blanding resident, Jed Lyman, implied that Blanding citizens had been disenfranchised by the court-ordered redistricting in 2017 that split Blanding into multiple districts and led to the election of Maryboy and Grayeyes. The redistricting came after Judge Robert Shelby found San Juan County to be in the violation of the Voting Rights Act for packing the majority of Native American voters into a single voting district.
“In the past, I’ve always had someone here who represented Blanding,” Lyman said. “Thanks to Judge Shelby, that’s no longer the case. We no longer have a member of our community on [the county commission]. In the past, the southern part of the county always had a representative, Blanding had a representative, and Monticello had a representative.”
Many Native American voters in the county expressed similar feelings about not being adequately represented on the commission prior to the redistricting. According to the most recent census data, San Juan County is majority Native American, but Anglos had, until last month, always controlled a majority on the county commission and school board. Blanding and Monticello are the two most populous towns in the county, and they were always represented by two commissioners despite the fact that together they only have a population of 5,600, or roughly one third of the county’s population. The county appealed the redistricting order in 2018, and the appeal has yet to be heard in court.
Merri Shumway introduced herself as a board member of the San Juan School District School, and asked the commission to hold off on making any decisions related to Bears Ears. Shumway said public lands decisions, including management decisions related to resource extraction, can affect funding for the school district.
During the uranium boom of the 1950s and ‘60s, when the Atomic Energy Commission agreed to buy large quantities of uranium at a fixed price, San Juan County’s economy boomed. Shumway noted it was then one of the wealthiest counties in the state, but it has since become the poorest. She urged caution against “locking up” land that can become an economic driver. “With the federal government trillions of dollars in debt, we should do everything we can to take care of ourselves in San Juan County,” she said.
Albert Holiday, a spiritual advisor to the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB) and vice president of the Oljato Chapter on the Navajo Nation, also referred to the legacy of uranium mining in the county. “We want the land protected. We don’t want drilling [or mining]. They did that to the reservation. A lot of our grandparents died from uranium, and we don’t want that to happen again,” Holiday said.
Monticello residents also still suffer from the legacy of uranium exposure as well, with the Monticello Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure reporting that more than more than 700 cancer cases in the area have been linked to uranium extraction and processing.
The Bears Ears designation banned new mining claims and drilling leases within the monument boundaries. Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium company that owns a mill and multiple mining claims in San Juan County lobbied the Trump administration to reduce the monument’s boundaries in 2017.
Holiday was joined by several other members of UDB who spoke out in support of the monument. Cynthia Wilson of Monument Valley, Utah, asked the county commission to support a 1.9-million acre monument as originally proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
“There’s nowhere else where Native people are at the table talking with the BLM and U.S. Forest Service. We seem to always be talking against each other, but we are in a new generation where we all need to work together,” Wilson said.
Blanding resident Nicole Perkins spoke in opposition to the monument but echoed the call for dialogue. “If we sat down and talked to each other, we’d figure out we have a lot of the same goals,” she said. “We look at people across the aisle as enemies, and we’re not; we’re neighbors.”
Anna Tom and Betty Jones of McCracken Mesa on the Navajo Nation spoke against the monument as did Suzette Morris of the Ute Mountain Ute town of White Mesa. Tom and Morris voiced concerns the monument designation could limit access to Native peoples who use the land in a traditional manner, while Jones commented in the Navajo language.
Mary Benally of UDB said her great great grandmother was born near the Bears Ears Buttes, and emphasized that the monument was created with a healing intent. “It’s public lands, it’s not just for Natives,” she said.
After the public comment period, Bruce Adams said that he has been involved with trying to come up with a management plan for the Bears Ears area for seven or eight years. He noted that, in his opinion, increased tourism spurred by the monument designation is the biggest threat to the landscape. He added there are already many layers of protection in place for archaeological resources.
“There are mineral leases out there that people have filed, but in order to extract those minerals they have to go through the BLM process, which is a very arduous and lengthy process,” Adams said. “I just can’t see with the number of cultural resources out there that that possibility would ever come to pass, unless it was determined that there were no cultural resources in a particular area.”
Outside of the monument boundaries, the presence of cultural resources has not stopped oil and gas leasing since new BLM directives were issued by the Trump administration in early 2018. Between March 2018 and March 2019, the BLM is slated to lease 95,000 acres of land just east of Bears Ears, despite dense archaeology in many of the parcels. The Pueblo of Acoma and the All Pueblo Council of Governors have filed formal protests, and Reveal magazine speculated that the sales may contain “the most archaeologically rich parcels ever offered for industrial use.”
The commission also discussed reopening a transfer station in Bluff and moving future commission meetings further south in the county. County attorney Laws informed the commissioners that state code requires the meetings to be held at the county seat in Monticello except for “occasional meetings outside the county seat as the public business requires.”
The discussion occurred during the work session, and no action was taken on the resolutions. They could be scheduled for vote at the next commission meeting on February 19.