‘Sagebrush Empire’ explores San Juan County’s history and politics with nuance, humor and meticulous research

The new book from journalist Jonathan P. Thompson sheds fresh light on wars over Utah’s public lands.

(Leah Hogsten | Salt Lake Tribune) Comb Ridge, located within the Bears Ears National Monument, June 26, 2020.

Environmental journalist Jonathan P. Thompson begins his millennia-spanning history of public lands battles in southeast Utah with the description of a kitschy sign hanging on the wall of a Durango, Colo., home. It reads: “Live like someone left the gate open.”

The sign, Thompson admits, makes “zero sense” without context.

The phrase has become a kind of inside joke referring to the prolonged legal battle fought by the couple that owns the home — environmental activist Rose Chilcoat and her husband Mark Franklin — Thompson explains. The pair was charged with multiple felonies for allegedly endangering livestock in 2017 after Franklin closed a cattle gate on state trust lands in San Juan County.

Chilcoat later sued the San Juan County attorney and the ranchers who pressed charges, arguing they were brought in retaliation for her activism in the county with the conservation nonprofit Great Old Broads for Wilderness.

The ordeal, which Thompson calls “Gategate,” serves as the launching point for his latest book, “Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands” (Torrey House Press, 2021).

(Torrey House Press) "Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands," by journalist Jonathan P. Thompson was released by Torrey House Press in August 2021.

A careful historian and a gifted writer, providing context is Thompson’s specialty. He regularly writes about on “Western lands and communities in context“ via his Substack newsletter The Land Desk — and in “Sagebrush Empire,” Thompson weaves connecting threads between the numerous political flare-ups that have punctuated San Juan County’s history since the half-starved Hole-in-the-Rock expedition straggled into what is now Bluff in 1880.

Gategate was “an escalation of the public lands fights that have been going on in San Juan County for a long time,” Thompson said at an outdoor book event in Bluff late last month. “I really had this curiosity: Why San Juan County? Why has the public lands fight become so bitter here? … Why was the former local power structure so resentful of outsiders, of the federal government, of the land management agencies?”

In unpacking those questions, Thompson jumps between deep-rooted Indigenous ties to the landscape, the evolving views of white settlers in the area, and the environmental history of the county as its economy has variously been based on ranching, uranium mining, oil drilling and outdoor recreation.

While describing a wave of controversial federal raids into the homes of antiquities collectors and dealers in Blanding in June 2009, for example, Thompson gives an overview of the laws designed to prevent the looting of Native American cultural sites on federal land as well as the anti-federal “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which several San Juan County sheriffs have aligned themselves with.

Many Blanding residents felt the raids were an example of extreme federal overreach, especially after they led to three suicides, including of a prominent and well-liked local doctor, James Redd. Resentment over the raids set the stage for then-Commissioner Phil Lyman’s armed ATV protest ride into Recapture Canyon in 2014 with members of the Bundy family. (Lyman was fined and spent ten days in jail for the protest; he was later pardoned by President Donald Trump.)

Thompson shows sympathy to multiple viewpoints — both to those outraged by Redd’s death and to the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, who had their ancestors’ bones scattered to the surface through decades of widespread graverobbing in San Juan County.

Thompson, a regular contributor to and former editor of High Country News, isn’t afraid to interject his own thoughtful analysis of the events based on decades of reporting. He tackles seemingly intractable problems like crowding on public lands without being overly prescriptive.

Throughout the book, Thompson, who grew up in Durango, also incorporates tales of his own lifelong explorations in southeast Utah, first as a child on camping trips with his parents, then as a college student looking for backcountry adventures, and finally as a journalist who was present at many of the events described in the book, including the Recapture Canyon protest.

Most of the personal stories Thompson tells are humorous backcountry misadventures where he and his friends tend to be the butt of the joke, whether it’s the time he was caught in a snowstorm on Cedar Mesa and had to be rescued by a Bureau of Land Management ranger or the gastrointestinal distress caused by a bad batch of homemade “instant beans’' on another backpacking trip.

The stories effectively push the narrative forward as Thompson works through his wide-ranging historical overview. The result is a highly readable account of the origins of the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” which has roots in San Juan County, and its connections to the ongoing battle over Bears Ears National Monument as well as the Native American-led push for voting rights in the area.

Thompson documents how the idea for a sprawling national monument in southeast Utah — and the accompanying anti-monument backlash — began nearly a century ago, and he explains why that history is critical to understanding the monument debate today. But perhaps more importantly, Thompson works to break down the binaries that so often accompany Bears Ears reporting, whether it’s the so-called “urban-rural divide” or the stereotypical “cowboys versus Native Americans” conflict.

“There is no homogenous, monolithic San Juan County way of life,” he writes, “or, for that matter, rural or ranching culture, just as there is no single urban culture. San Juan County is a diverse place, with myriad ways of life and customs.”

It’s Thompson’s ability to capture some of that diversity that makes “Sagebrush Empire” a must-read for anyone who shares his love of the land and his fascination with San Juan County’s storied history.

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.

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