On the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, a dispute over rights of way means rough roads, long bus rides

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy examines a road on the Navajo Nation that is being maintained by the Navajo Department of Transportation. The county hopes to sign an agreement with the tribal government in order to assist with road maintenance.

Montezuma Creek • “Whoa! There’s a rut,” said San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy as coffee sloshed from a gas station cup wedged between the front seats of his pickup.

Maryboy had gradually increased his speed to reduce the rattle from the badly washboarded Navajo Nation road south of Montezuma Creek before the deep rut in hardened mud forced him to slam on the brakes.

The incident made Maryboy’s point. He had planned a press tour of dirt roads on the Navajo Nation portion of San Juan County to show how bad the conditions had become for school buses and residents, many of whom live miles from the nearest pavement.

“Just imagine sitting on a bus through here when you’re all tired from school,” Maryboy said of the more than three hours per day some students spend riding the school bus. “People are suffering every day because of these roads.”

For decades, San Juan County performed routine road maintenance on hundreds of miles of roads across the northern Navajo Nation with over $1 million in annual Class B road funding from the state of Utah. The roads were still rough in places, but the county was generally responsive to major issues, Maryboy said.

[Read more: The Navajo Nation is getting addresses, thanks to an open-source mapping program used in urban India]

In April 2018, however, the Navajo Division of Transportation sent a letter to San Juan County, saying that it had been told by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to “transition the county route ownership to tribal route ownership” in a federal inventory.

According to NDOT’s letter, the county had been performing maintenance under an “assumed right of way” to the routes, and the Navajo Nation wanted to assert its claim as the titleholder.

NDOT has since taken over road maintenance on Navajo Nation lands in the county, and during Maryboy’s tour, a heavily used road east of the Red Mesa Chapter House was being actively graded by NDOT.

But a lack of funding has meant roads go longer between maintenance cycles than they did before 2018. Just ahead of the grader’s path, Maryboy pointed out how the tumbleweeds had grown up to two feet tall, indicating it had been months since the last time the machine passed through.

Red Mesa Chapter Vice President Marilyn Holly, a local tribal official, said the road conditions are one of the most frequent complaints she gets from her constituents.

“They come in all the time,” she said. “There’s [an NDOT] form in the chapter house that you can fill out,” but she doesn’t think it has much impact on how the agency determines its maintenance schedule.

All three San Juan County commissioners — which in addition to Maryboy include fellow Democrat and Navajo Nation member Willie Grayeyes as well as Bruce Adams, a Republican from Monticello — have said fixing the roads is a priority, and all three have pitched in on the effort to work out a right-of-way agreement with NDOT that would allow San Juan County to resume maintenance.

But with the many agencies and levels of government involved — from the county and state to the tribal government and federal agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs — the agreement has been stuck in a bureaucratic limbo.

In October, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez met with U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who represents southeastern Utah in Congress, and local leaders, including Grayeyes and Adams. Everyone present agreed that the road issue needed to be resolved, according to reports from the meeting.

Nez told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time that he and Curtis were going to develop a work group to address issues in Utah, including road conditions. “We’re very hopeful we can streamline some of the processes to improve them,” Nez said.

More than a year after Maryboy and Grayeyes took office as members of the county’s first majority-Navajo commission, and months after Nez and Curtis pledged to help find a solution, the agreement has still not been signed. Residents of the Navajo Nation have made repeated trips to County Commission meetings to express frustration that the roads have yet to be fixed.

San Juan County Administrator Mack McDonald said there has been progress recently, adding that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is partnering with the county on an agreement. “We’re waiting to hear back from NDOT on when we can schedule the next meeting to complete the interlocal agreement,” he said.

McDonald said NDOT is completing an inventory of roads and making a list of school bus routes that the county will prioritize in its maintenance schedule once the agreement is signed.

Garret Silversmith, division director for NDOT, said his agency plans to sign the agreement “as soon as possible,” but he did not elaborate on timing.

For Maryboy, action is long overdue. “Unless we can come together and start making some headway, these problems aren’t going to be solved," he said. “If everyone signs it, that would be great. Then we’ll hunker down and do what we have to do: Fix the roads for everybody.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.