Changing San Juan County
I have made a concerted effort to steer away from making this blog overtly political. I have done this for two reasons. The first is that I want to make it as democratic and accessible to any and all who might stumble across it, regardless of whether we see eye to eye politically. The second is that I want the content to be as evergreen as possible, and hot political takes (usually made without anything close to full information) don’t tend to age very well. With that said, I can’t let the remarkable happenings currently going in Utah’s San Juan County go by without mention.
For the uninitiated, San Juan County is the largest of Utah’s 29 counties, with a land mass of 7,821 square miles. It is lightly populated (15,193 residents at the time of the last census) and home to some of the most ruggedly beautiful and iconic landscape in the American west. If you don’t know it, you actually probably do owing to the fact that it is home to Monument Valley. It is also home to national monuments at Rainbow Bridge and Natural Bridges, state parks at Edge of the Cedars and Goosenecks, Four Corners, Cedar Mesa, Grand Gulch, and the highly controversial Bears Ears National Monument.
The unforgiving canyon country of San Juan County has been carved out over millennium by the Colorado and San Juan Rivers. It was the ancestral home of the Anasazi, who have left plenty of archaeological evidence of their presence behind. Today a large portion of the Navajo Nation sits within the boundary lines of San Juan County.
Full-scale white settlement of the area came in 1879 when a group of Mormons set out from Escalante on the Hole-In-The-Rock Expedition. They arrived at the site of present day Bluff on April 6, 1880. Early attempts at ranching and agriculture along the San Juan River proved difficult, leading to the settlements of modern-day Blanding and Monticello in the (slightly) higher country near the Abajo Mountains.
In several ways the economic story of San Juan County is a microcosm for Utah and serves as the locus for much of the angst over federal control of public land that now animates so many of Utah’s elected officials. Oil and gas exploration figures prominently into the history of San Juan County, as does the sordid history of Utah’s uranium mining boom that hit the state in the Cold War 1950’s. Yet, in spite of the persistent romance attached to extractive industry, it is tourism that is now central to San Juan County’s economy.
So, with that (brief) backstory, it is easy to see why what has transpired in San Juan County over the last few months is so remarkable. In a county where the majority Navajo Nation has long been held in political check by a largely white Mormon minority, two Navajo’s, Willie Grayeyes and Ken Maryboy, were elected to serve on a San Juan County Commission during the last election cycle. This means that the county commission has suddenly shifted from being majority white and Republican to majority Democrat and American Indian. It is a historic moment, and a likely precursor to the types of sweeping change that will become more common with demographic shift and a (hopefully) more active and engaged citizenry.
Of course, this sudden, dramatic change isn’t happening without the expected amount of fear and shenanigans among those who stand to cede some power. Challenges to Grayeyes residency status have been made and it wouldn’t shock me if this new county commission faces unprecedented resistance moving forward. In all of the reporting on this story, one quote from the Salt Lake Tribune has stood out to me above all others:
I find this quote striking for several reasons. It is clearly the perspective of someone who is facing unexpected change that has them feeling marginalized and scared. My first instinct is to dismiss it as divisive and baseless fear-mongering. But dig a little deeper and you can see how tantalizing close this unnamed Republican is to a transformative life experience. If they would just sit with that feeling they’re having and closely examine it, maybe they would come to see that what they are currently feeling is a direct analog to feelings long held by the Navajo residents of San Juan County (namely fear and skepticism that anybody is listening or representing their interests). In a place where change happens on a geologic scale, maybe this is what incremental progress looks like.