‘The divide holds up’: How two rural Utah counties disagree on most everything, but especially environmental policies

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Bruce Adams, left, chairman of the San Juan County Commission, and San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman pose for photographs at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017.

Grand and San Juan counties, neighbors in the southeastern corner of Utah, are divided by a dusty 60-mile border and, according to a new poll, a stark split in public opinion.

It’s an unusual but not wholly unexpected fracture for this rural — and mostly red — area of the state. But at its heart, more pronounced here than anywhere else, are decades of differences over land management policies that have largely determined economic prosperity, population growth, unemployment rates, poverty and, as the survey suggests, political leanings, too.

“There are these very differing viewpoints between the residents,” said Judd Nielsen, a lead researcher with Dan Jones & Associates, which conducted the poll. “For most of the questions, the divide holds up.”

That includes polling on environmentalists, the Bureau of Land Management and the national monument designation at Bears Ears. The majority of residents in San Juan County, a community of farmers and ranchers that sits to the south, had unfavorable opinions of all three. The results were nearly flipped in Grand County, a thriving redrock tourist destination to the north.

The survey was commissioned in March by defense attorneys representing conservation advocate Rose Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin, who face felony charges for closing a cattle gate in San Juan (just one of the many pending cases in the county over land access and voting rights). They filed the results earlier this month as an exhibit to prove the intense resentment toward and “pervasive dislike” of wilderness activists there. And it worked.

Of the 208 residents surveyed in the county, 61 percent had an unfavorable opinion of environmentalists (compared with 32 percent in Grand); 57 percent said they dislike the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, which Chilcoat previously directed. Her lawyers, too, pointed to an interview County Commissioner Phil Lyman did with Four Corners Free Press in which he called conservation groups “a disease.”

The judge granted a motion to move the trial to Carbon County, which fell more middle-of-the-pack. But the poll numbers also show, for perhaps the first time, just how far the adjacent Grand and San Juan counties have diverged ideologically in the past 30 years .

Pam Perlich, director of demographics at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, believes the shift came at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. After that, she said, San Juan dug further into a traditional “old Utah” economy that favors ranching and mining. Grand dropped its uranium businesses and embraced tourism with the sandstone spires of Arches National Park at its doorstep in bustling Moab.

“The economic development strategies have been very different,” she said. “Grand County became an outdoor sports mecca. San Juan County not so much.”

It’s a setup that has continued with San Juan bucking at the national monument designated by President Barack Obama in its backyard, with 75 percent of residents opposing it. “That’s what we call consensus,” Nielsen said. (Grand, according to the poll, welcomed it by a 55 percent majority.)

San Juan, too, has nearly double the poverty (31 percent) and unemployment rates (6.4 percent) as its northern neighbor, according to data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services. And it sees 20 percent less revenue from the hospitality and leisure industry than Grand, which attracts more recreationists and retirees. Fewer people move to the county each year, as well.

The different land use models, Perlich said, are likely behind all of that.

“They’ve got to be rooted in these long historical differences of the people who have moved there, how they’ve made a living and what their cultures are.”

She cautions, though, that the Dan Jones survey, with a margin of error of plus or minus 6.8 percentage points, might have left out Navajo residents in San Juan County, who make up 50 percent of the population but can be hard to reach in polls conducted by landlines. (The bulk of poll respondents were in Blanding and Monticello, where whites far outnumber Navajos.) They would generally be more in favor of the monument and environmentalists.

“If you survey the Native Americans, it’s usually different,” added Mark Maryboy, a Navajo and former Democratic commissioner for San Juan. “Native Americans believe that conservation and tourism are a viable economic development plan because it’s consistent. It’s always there. It maybe doesn’t pay as much as oil and gas, but it’s something that you can rely on.”

Environmentalists and party politics

Josh Ewing has gotten death threats. All four of his car tires have been slashed while he’s been hiking in remote desert corners of San Juan County. And, he said, “I’ve had a county commissioner say, ‘We want to get parasitic environmentalists the hell out.’”

Ewing, executive director of the southern Utah group Friends of Cedar Mesa, hasn’t seen that same kind of backlash against conservationists in Grand County.

“It’s far less of a ‘sagebrush rebel’ crowd, even among the more conservative people there,” he said.

Nielsen credits some of that difference in attitude and acceptance to how party politics break down in each county. In Grand, for instance, there’s a near-even split between liberal and conservative voters. In the 2016 presidential race, Republican Donald Trump took the county by just 0.3 percent over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Before that, residents chose GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 (by one of his slimmest margins in the state) and Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.

San Juan County, on the other hand, has gone red in at least the past five national elections.

“I had those assumptions, but did not realize just how far the divide is between those two neighboring counties,” Nielsen said.

The BLM and local celebrity

The survey also found that Grand County residents had a 68 percent favorable view of the BLM while its southern neighbor had 45 percent.

San Juan has had an antagonistic relationship with the federal land agency after it closed a canyon to protect ancient American Indian dwellings. Current commissioner Lyman, a descendant of the Mormon ranching family that settled in the small town of Blanding in 1905, led an ATV ride there anyway in May 2014 and was ordered to spend 10 days in jail.

He’s well-known for it within the county — with an astonishing 63 percent approval rating — but outside he’s much less of a celebrity. Some 44 percent of Grand residents and 58 percent in Carbon had never heard of Lyman. Both fall just outside the state House district he’s running for this year.

“I don’t care. I don’t try to be well known. I just do the right thing,” Lyman responded. “If people like what I do, it makes me more nervous than if they get upset about it, honestly. If people are supporting you, it usually means you’re doing the wrong thing.”

Those who did have an opinion of him in Grand, though, were twice as likely to see him negatively as positively, Nielsen said, reinforcing the connection between those who support the BLM and environmentalists.

Grand County

It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg question: Did more progressive environmentalists move to Grand County because of its land policy? Or did the land policy take shape because of more left-leaning residents there?

The current Democratic Party chairman and a former Republican councilman at least agree that, either way, the county is markedly different from San Juan.

“They’re geographic equals, but culturally there’s a big difference,” said Kevin Walker, who heads the Grand County Democratic Party. “If you visit Moab and you visit Monticello, you’ll see a big difference.”

Lynn Jackson, a onetime GOP councilman and a former BLM employee, has lived in Moab for 35 years. While he sees how public lands have brought tourists to the area — which he believes is not all good — he also credits early mining for bringing in people from around the world.

“There has always been a little bit of a difference,” Jackson added. “It’s widened in the last 20 years.”

Moab, the largest city in Grand, is also close to Denver and on the main highway that most drive through to get to San Juan County. It’s a gateway, of sorts.