‘It seems like payback': Some San Juan County residents express a growing sense of being disenfranchised

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Newly sworn in San Juan County commissioners Bruce Adams, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy discuss some issues after being sworn in at the San Juan County Courthouse in Monticello, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019.

Just under a month after the new San Juan County Commission took the oath of office — shifting the body from a long-standing white Republican majority to a Democratic and Navajo one — its members considered a major reversal to the county’s stance on public lands.

While the previous commission had opposed the designation of Bears Ears National Monument on 1.3 million acres spanning areas rich in Native American artifacts, sacred sites and geologic wonders, the new guard is looking at a resolution that would rescind that stance and call for the monument’s full restoration in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order to shrink it.

But the proposal wasn’t well received among some residents of the southeastern Utah community, who expressed a growing sense of disenfranchisement as they spoke against it during a more than hourlong public comment period at the commission’s work meeting Tuesday. Audio of the meeting was posted on the state’s public meeting website Thursday.

“Your first actions as commissioners is to simply undo things prior commissioners have done and you’re doing this without any local input at all,” said Kim Henderson, a Monticello resident. “That, to me, does not display any sort of attempting to unify or heal San Juan County. Rather, it seems like payback and is just going to cause more divisiveness.”

Another worried the shift would make the county look “pretty fickle.”

“It has potential [for] considerable fallout and makes us less of a voice than we were before," said Shanon Brooks, also of Monticello.

Still others expressed support for the resolution, which was proposed by Commissioner Ken Maryboy, a Navajo.

Mary Benally, a Bluff resident who serves on the Utah Diné Bikéyah board of directors, noted there’s strong tribal support for protecting the Bears Ears area that she felt the previous commission had disregarded.

“Before it was proclaimed as a national monument, time and time again we have asked county officials, county commissioners, citizens of the county, the state of Utah and the federal government to sit down with us at the table and talk, have some dialogues on this issue," she said. “But that really never has come to pass. We have always been ignored.”

Under the new Navajo majority, that may be changing.

“Our way of life has been acknowledged for the first time, and I want that to continue,” said a man who identified himself during public comment as a spiritual adviser for Utah Diné Bikéyah and expressed support for the resolution. “We use that land every day. We gather wood and we do our offerings out there. We do our prayers. And we want that to be protected.”

The three commissioners took no action on the resolution at the meeting Tuesday and spoke little during the more than hour of public comment, which focused mostly on the monument issue and included some statements made entirely or partially in indigenous languages.

Residents opposed to the move worried that restoring Bears Ears would leave the county, which is the state’s largest and poorest county, with an over-reliance on the federal government. Merri Shumway, a Blanding resident who serves on the San Juan School Board, raised concerns that the move would reduce resources for basics like education, roads and local law enforcement.

San Juan is home to three other national monuments: Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge and Hovenweep, as well as Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and parts of Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

President Barack Obama established Bears Ears in one of his last acts in office, using the 1906 Antiquities Act that granted a president unilateral power to preserve national treasures. Trump, in 2017, cut 85 percent of the monument’s boundaries using the same law Obama had used to create it.

Congressional Democrats have introduced a bill that would create a 1.9 million-acre monument in southeastern Utah, 600,000 acres larger than the one Obama named in 2016. The larger monument outlined in the Bears Ears Expansion and Respect for Sovereignty Act would match the one the Navajo and four other tribes petitioned Obama to designate.

In the meantime, lawsuits over Trump’s action continue in federal court, with environmental groups and tribes arguing the president doesn’t have the authority to erase monument designations.

San Juan County has filed court papers to intervene on the side of the Trump administration in three of those suits. Under one of the County Commission’s proposed resolutions, San Juan would withdraw from these suits and terminate its service agreement with Mountain States Legal Foundation, a right-leaning nonprofit law firm representing three counties in the monument lawsuits.

The commission did not vote Tuesday on that or any of Maryboy’s other resolutions. The commissioner also wants to direct some commission meetings to be held in locations in the southern portion of the county, where most of the indigenous population is located, and to prepare a comprehensive inventory of all civil litigation in which the county is a party.