Will a much-touted project to revamp the Four Corners end up as a monumental failure?
By David Grant Long
Four tattered and sun-bleached state flags flap in a crisp breeze that stirs up an occasional dust devil. A wide arc of plywood vendor stalls stand mostly empty, but people at one or two are hawking jewelry, pottery, T-shirts and of course, fry bread.
A stark, bare-walled visitors center overheated by an ancient propane furnace is unattended, its only literature contained in a small lucite rack provided by a Montezuma County tourist group. The circular stone wall of a viewing area looking east toward the Sleeping Ute Mountain is in disrepair, with parts of the wall cracked and missing.
In the center of this setting — just off U.S. Highway 160 not far from the San Juan River — is a granite disc embedded with a bronze cross, marking the intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
There is no running water anywhere, and three smelly Porta-Potties are the only means of answering Nature's calls.
This is the Four Corners Monument, more than three years after a $4.25 million project to improve the tourist attraction’s “appalling conditions” was announced with considerable fanfare, and two years after a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the monument to construct an interpretive center, restrooms with running water, attractive vendor booths and landscaping around the central plaza.
Mired in conflicts between two sovereign Indian nations, the project, it now appears, may never be completed.
The monument lies completely on reservation lands and is owned jointly by the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, with the Colorado section Ute territory and the other three portions belonging to the Navajos.
In 1999 Congress awarded a $2.25 million federal grant jointly to the tribes to refurbish the tacky roadside attraction and build an interpretive center to educate visitors about Native American culture. The federal grant was contingent on each of the four states providing $500,000 in matching funds. The Four Corners Heritage Council was put in charge of dispensing the federal funds and making sure the conditions of the grant were met otherwise.
Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico came up with their shares relatively promptly, but it took until August 2003 for Colorado to agree to provide $200,000 through its Department of Local Affairs. The Ute Mountain Ute tribe promised to supply the remainder for that state's share.
Then-DOLA director Mike Beasley announced the agreement during a meeting with Ute tribal officials in Towaoc, Colo., just days before the deadline for the federal funds would have passed.
During the intervening three-plus years, however, nothing has changed at the monument, no improvements have been made, and the original joint operating agreement between the two tribes has been scrapped.
“The condition now is that there is no agreement between the two tribes,” said Cleal Bradford, executive director of the Four Corners Heritage Council, even though “the federal money did come, it was available for use, and we had the full ($2 million) match.”
One major roadblock is how future revenues from the attraction would be divided between the tribes.
“Two years ago we did hold a groundbreaking down there,” Bradford told the Free Press by phone from Utah. “We had an agreement in place and were intending to have the project bid out as soon as we could finalize some of the engineering items. What happened thereafter was the Navajo Nation decided they wanted to change the mix a little bit [and] kept holding up the agreement.”
Essentially, Bradford said, the Navajo Nation wanted a bigger share of the revenues, since threequarters of the monument is on Navajo territory.
“The [financial] agreement was kind of a 50-50 relationship,” Bradford explained, “and I guess there must have been some of the leadership of the Navajo change, and they felt like they were being short-changed a little bit on that arrangement.
“Now the condition was that if the operation broke even or lost money, it was still 50-50 [and] if it made a little money it was 50-50, and I guess they got thinking it was going to be a money-maker.”
Other reported bones of contention are which tribe would build the project — the Utes' Weeminuche Construction Authority or the Navajo Construction Authority — and an old dispute over the exact boundaries of the reservation lands involved.
According to Montezuma County Assessor Mark Vanderpool, another member of the Heritage Council board of directors, the legal descriptions of the boundaries of four states and the tribal lands differ, with the Navajo Nation claiming its land extends more than 300 feet north into the Ute part of the monument. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the current location is correct, but the Navajo Nation contends that it is not bound by another sovereign nation's ruling anyway.
“It's like getting the Palestinians and the Israelis to sit down and talk,” said Vanderpool.
“It seems to me to be that difficult — we'll have a meeting and have representation from one tribe or the other, but very rarely, if ever, do they both show.
“I fear that it's going to be 'everyone loses'.”
Frances Redhouse, tribal council member for the Navajos’ Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., chapter, which includes the monument area, was contacted twice by the Free Press but declined to comment.
Repeated attempts were also made to contact several officials with the tribes, including Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart, Ute Mountain Planning Director Troy Ralstin, Navajo Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation Martin Begay, and the communications director for Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., George Hardeen. None responded to phone messages except Hardeen, who said he knew nothing about the situation.
No reliable information on the number of annual visitors to the monument is available, but it is widely publicized by area tourist groups as a stop on suggested day trips and in the summer, at least, the site sees a steady stream of tourists.
At present, their $3-per-person entrance fee gets them only the chance to buy various wares and to have their photo taken with a limb in each state, an impulse that seems to be powerful and universal.
“Quite frankly, the Four Corners Monument, as it now exists, is very underwhelming,” commented Vanderpool. Whether conditions will ever change remains highly uncertain. The promised funding is starting to evaporate because of the lack of progress on the original ambitious plan. New Mexico and Utah have both taken back their funding.
“When the Navajos reneged on the agreement, Utah asked for their money back,” Bradford said. “They just figured the project was dead at that point.” Little tourism benefit would be derived by Utah anyway from the revamped monument, he pointed out, since there is no direct access from that state.
“New Mexico's commitment was for $500,000, but that elapsed as well,” he said, “but the Navajo Nation is working with New Mexico to try to get them to re-commit,” and the state legislature is going to take up the matter this session.
“We've resurrected these other ideas since to try to have each of the tribes do something within their own tribal boundaries,” Bradford added.
Bradford said Colorado's funding is now up in the air.
“We've got another five months before the Colorado money goes, and if something hasn't happened before that, I don't expect to see Colorado extend theirs again.
“If we can't get something pulled together in the next two or three months, probably the federal dollars will be lost too,” he said.
If that happens, it would be a shame, Bradford said.
“For the past 12 years there's been this enormous amount of energy and time by a variety of people — money spent, miles travelled — it would be a tragedy if this thing came to naught.”
The delays and disagreements seem to justify the potition of former State Rep. Mark Larson (R-Cortez), who had opposed the state funding on the grounds that the monument mainly benefits the tribes. Larson also argued that since the Utes pay no state sales tax on goods sold on the reservation — other than fuel tax — the tribe should contribute all of the Colorado share.
“The [Ute] tribe is a sovereign nation that is routinely touting that sovereignty when the state or local government wants cooperation on mutually beneficial issues or attempts told the tribal government accountable,” Larson wrote to Gov. Bill Owens in a lastditch appeal to withhold the DOLA funding at the time.
In a January e-mail to the Free Press, Larson suggested it is now time for the states to call in its markers.
“ . . . The bottom line is that they have not fulfilled their promises and the states should be looking at getting their money back,” Larson said.
“The on-going battle between the tribes over who should control, etc., has not been resolved to date. I think that they should go back to the beginning and start over. The issues should be hammered out PRIOR to securing funding. It seems disingenuous to secure funding and then never start construction because of bickering,” Larson wrote.
The deadline for Colorado’s DOLA funds was to have expired at the end of October 2006.
Cortez City Manager Hal Shepherd attempted to find out what was happening from Ute chairman Heart, but did not get a reply until the last minute.
“ … if the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute tribes cannot come to an agreement by Oct. 31, the grant monies will expire,” Shepherd wrote on Oct. 24, noting that he’d left a message for Heart “a couple weeks ago” and had heard nothing.
Only on Oct. 29, two days before the Colorado money was to dry up, did Heart reply to Shepherd’s repeated attempts to contact him.
In a letter to Shepherd, Heart said the Ute Mountain Utes are “completely committed to the development of the Four Corners Monument.”
“Unfortunately, the Navajo Nation has conditioned any agreement between the Tribes for development at the monument on the [Ute] Tribe agreeing that Navajo Nation lands extend into the state of Colorado,” he said. “The Ute tribe simply cannot agree to this requirement of the Navajo Nation.”
Heart wrote that an agreement was hammered out between him and Bradford under which the interpretive center would be built on Ute land and the restrooms on Navajo land under separate agreements with the Heritage Council.
“Too many people have worked too hard, for too long, to see this project fail,” Heart wrote.
Ken Charles, DOLA director for Region 9, is more optimistic than many of the other players about the future of the monument. He said the Colorado money will remain committed for the foreseeable future as long as the possibility of improving the monument exists.
“We're really flexible and if there's a good reason to extend it [beyond the end of 2007] we probably would," Charles said. “Our experience has been that if we have patience with projects they eventually do get done.”
There would be a major advantage in doing separate projects, Bradford said.
“If the Ute Mountain tribe proceeds with the interpretive center, we could match whatever portion they were able to come up with,” regardless of what the Navajo Nation might do on its part of the monument, he said. “It would appear that that might move forward.
“I've had discussions with the Navajos about what they might want to do, and they're still more discussion than decision, but the Ute Mountain [tribe] has actually committed — we have a letter from them saying they would like to proceed with the interpretive facility in Colorado.”
Under the now-defunct original plan, the visitors center would have straddled the Colorado/New Mexico border.
Bradford said that under the terms of the federal grant, an agreement between the tribes for a joint project is not necessarily required, but what is mandatory is that “one tribe supports what the other tribe is doing.”
“So it wouldn't be a joint operation — it would be a letter from the Navajos saying they support what the Utes are doing.”
‘It’s just nuts’
Vanderpool said the advantages of improving the monument would be many, but expressed doubt that any will be forthcoming with the current atmosphere between the tribes.
“One of my first meetings was to go to the ground-breaking ceremony that was held down at the monument,” Vanderpool recalled. “At that point in time the money was in the bank and everyone thought this was going to happen expeditiously.
“Well, here we are two-plus years later and I think we're further away now from anything happening than we were then. It seems like they just don't want to sit down and work it out.”
He said when the possibility of each tribe doing its own project was suggested, with the Utes building the interpretive center and the Navajos the restrooms, Heart embracred the idea, but the Navajos responded by threatening to block access, since the current entrance road to the monument lies entirely on Navajo land. Then the Utes suggested the possibility of building their own road.
“I recall a brief discussion about the Utes building a new road across their land,” Vanderpool said, “and that's when the Navajos said, 'We would do anything we can to block access.’
“It's just nuts.
“So this thing just goes on and on and on, with both sovereign nations shooting each other in the foot, quite frankly.
“It's very frustrating.” Vanderpool stressed that his remarks were in no way intended to “dampen any entity's enthusiasm for doing something down there.”
Still, he is fed up with the posturing and shenanigans that have been stalling the project.
“The more you stir it, the more it stinks,” he said.
He said the Heritage Council and Bradford in particular deserve credit for the efforts still being made.
“Our guiding light has been to try to hold this thing together, and it's been one disappointment after another and one new plan after another, trying to get the players — mainly the tribes — to work together.
“And here we sit in 2007, and I wish I could say we were closer,” Vanderpool said. “Maybe I'm a cynic, but I just fear the facts are that there are still hurdles to jump.
“I've never been involved in a more frustrating exercise,” Vanderpool said, “but the bottom line is if we could do something down there and create a nice facility with the heritage center, eats, nice restrooms, it would be so beneficial to both tribes, to surrounding communities and to the tourists themselves — it would actually turn it into an attractive destination."
But if that is not possible, it may be time for the money to be returned to its original sources, he said.
“There's a significant part of me that feels that if these players can't agree to agree for everyone's mutual benefit here locally, I'm sure these monies could be better spent elsewhere.