Making their voices heard: As San Juan County, Utah, mulls public-lands management, a grassroots Navajo group weighs in with proposals of its own

As San Juan County, Utah, mulls public-lands management, a grassroots Navajo group weighs in with proposals of its own

Faced with the possibility of new national monuments popping up in their state through presidential proclamation, Utah lawmakers have been working to cobble together a legislative alternative for managing millions of acres of public land in a way that will satisfy everyone from environmentalists to energy interests to traditional users.

That enormously difficult task is even more complicated in San Juan County in southeastern Utah, where more than 50 percent of the population is Native American, mostly Diné, members of the Navajo Nation.

That population – whose interests were neglected for many years by federal, state, and local entities – is an especially critical player in the negotiations over managing the area’s federal public lands, which are rich in scenery, mineral resources, cultural resources, and historic importance.

But the land-management proposal developed by a group chosen to represent the Navajo Nation in the negotiations has met with some resistance from the San Juan County Commission and has prompted concern over its possible impacts to wood-gathering done by many Diné living in the county. (See sidebar.)

The plan by Utah Diné Bikéyah, a grassroots nonprofit whose name means “Navajo homeland,” calls for the creation of a 1.9-million-acre national conservation area, one-third to one-half of which could be wilderness, plus some wilderness designations outside the NCA. The proposed designations are intended to protect sites sacred to Native Americans, including Cedar Mesa, White Canyon, Dark Canyon, Nokai Dome, Abajo Peak, Ruin Park, portions of the San Juan River and Comb Ridge.

“Contrary to the beliefs of many, southeastern Utah was not an empty place waiting to be inhabited by settlers or discovered as a playground for recreationists, but rather it has been and will remain a part of our homeland in this country,” said Willie Grayeyes, chair of the Diné Bikéyah board, in a Jan. 22, 2014, address at the state capitol in Salt Lake City.

“Our history with European settlers has not been a positive experience, to say the very least. Our great-grandmothers and grandfathers were force-marched from these lands; their hogans burned and so many of our people died. Unfortunately, it did not end there. . .

“Today, we come hoping that a time of healing is possibly upon us. A time of healing created by this land planning and our own Diné Bikéyah National Conservation Area.”

A deluge of input

Three years ago, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican, proposed the Utah Public Lands Initiative, an ambitious effort to find consensus on many long-hanging issues surrounding public-lands management. Seven counties in eastern Utah are involved: San Juan, Carbon, Daggett, Emery, Grand, Summit and Uintah.

Since then, state leaders, conservation groups, industry representatives, nongovernmental organizations, and the public have negotiated agreements designed to lead to greater certainty about how public land will be used and managed in Utah.

More than a thousand meetings reportedly were held to gather input from every possible interest group. More than 120 groups have weighed in on the 60- some proposals under consideration by the congressional delegation.

The draft bill is slated to be unveiled March 27.

“We have examined over 60 proposals, including the Utah Diné Bikéyah proposal,” said Fred Fergeson, chief of staff for Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, co-sponsor of the public-lands bill, in a phone interview. “All of them are the result of gathering input and examining the uses of the people. In the end the bill will reflect something for everybody.

“We are encouraged by the discussions and joint cooperation on the local level. . . .

“Our schedule to unveil the draft on March 27 is on target. We intend to keep the process moving along while Congressman Bishop is the chairman of the [House] Natural Resources Committee. This process shifts the paradigm of land-use designation in Utah and will serve as a model for the rest of the country.”

Possible monuments

What has set this initiative apart from past efforts to craft public-lands legislation for Utah is Bishop’s insistence that the concerns of all stakeholders be considered, coupled with a sense of urgency created by the possibility that President Obama will designate one or more Utah national monuments at the end of his term.

Obama has been especially pressured to designate a “Greater Canyonlands National Monument” that would include millions of acres in the vicinity of Canyonlands National Park.

In 2010, an Interior Department memo was leaked (it was later publicly released) listing sites that are “good candidates” for monument designation, including Utah’s San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa – although the memo also states, “further evaluations should be completed prior to any final decision, including an assessment of public and Congressional support.”

Obama is expected to hold off on creating the monuments if the public lands initiative succeeds instead.

“While some may disagree with certain provisions…most understand the need for balance and compromise as part of the process,” Bishop wrote in a 2014 update on the project. “We are confident that a deal can be reached and that Utah’s land management paradigm can be greatly enhanced and local economies boosted.”

The sweeping proposal is expected to cover 18 million acres of federal lands and 1.6 million acres of wilderness study areas in the state.

Prior to Bishop’s initiative, the Diné had been working on land-management planning in response to an effort launched by then-Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010. At that time, the Utah Diné began interviewing elders and medicine men at the seven chapter houses located in southern Utah Navajo land, commonly referred to as the Utah Navajo Strip, to gather information on how the Native people use the land and value its resources.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Division of Natural Resources entered into a memorandum of understanding with Diné Bikéyah to represent Diné community interests and be included in all discussions and meetings pertaining to the land-use proposals. The group’s board is made up of residents of the Utah Navajo Strip, all Navajo, although its executive director is not Native American.

Twenty percent of the land base in San Juan County, about 1 million acres, is sovereign Navajo land, where residents live near the federal lands that are used by the people for gathering firewood and medicinal herbs, hunting, and ceremonial purposes. The Navajo Nation and the San Juan County Commission agreed to undertake a joint planning process to develop recommendations for land designations within the county

By April 2013 Diné Bikéyah’s proposal was ready. It was presented under its original title, Diné Bikéyah National Conservation Area, to the San Juan County commissioners and the Utah Congressional delegation. Although the title has changed to Bear’s Ears National Conservation Area, it still represents the Navajo vision and formal position.

Awaiting a reply

In an email reply to a Free Press query asking how the plan has been received by San Juan County, Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a Navajo who represents the Utah Navajo Strip, wrote, “Diné Bikéyah has not shared their proposal, seems it varies each meeting.”

In response to a question regarding the state of the county proposal, she added, “The San Juan County proposal is in 1st draft.”

But according to Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, the group has presented the Bear’s Ears National Conservation Area proposal several times since the April 2013 meeting.

“We have shown them all the files and information and explained the proposal for the conservation area,” Noyes said. “The Utah congressional delegation asked us to joint-plan the proposal with the San Juan County commissioners and we have not heard a reply from them or seen any proposal. We are actively engaged with the Utah congressional delegation and the legislative process, too. We want to make sure the Native plan is included.”

According to San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, the county has not reached a decision on the specific proposal it will support.

“We’ve had lots of council work meetings with Diné Bikéyah and looked at plans submitted by lots of users and interest groups,” Adams told the Free Press. “I hope we can remain fluid now. Nothing has been decided firmly yet. We’re not going to finish this overnight. The commission intends to remain inclusive of Diné Bikéyah and all the Utah people in our county.”


Nick Sandberg, San Juan County’s liaison to state and federal agencies, said in a telephone interview that he has attended the Diné Bikéyah presentations.

“The maps and the explanations are accessible, but the co-management plan has yet to be worked out,” Sandberg said. “The county is very interested in it. The wilderness designation proposed by Diné Bikéyah is probably too large. I am hopeful we can negotiate some boundary changes in those areas.”

The county commissioners appointed a citizens’ advisory group, the San Juan County Lands Council, to come up with recommendations for a land-use proposal. They came up with three alternative plans, dubbed A, B, and C.

“I do not know what Commissioner Benally means by ‘stage 1,’ but the advisory group has presented the plans at six open-house meetings located throughout the county for the commission and the citizens to consider,” Sandberg said. “They say they are trying to collaborate with the Navajo Nation but there has not been a lot of feedback and that there is still an interest in meeting with Diné Bikéyah and other Native groups.

Grayeyes disagreed with that assessment. “The [commission’s advisory group] presented their A-B-C proposals to the community without ours,” he said. “We got them to present ours, but it was afterward. It had no specifics.”

Adams said the group is a “committee made up of employees of the county and grazers, miners, four-wheeler groups, native people and others. We took the three proposals out to the public for comment. Nothing’s been decided yet.”

According to Sandberg, the commission appointed an additional lands team composed of courthouse staff. “It is more a technical team. I was part of that. They asked us to look over the proposals and, although we looked at them all, we concentrated on the three from the lands council appointed by the commission [A, B, and C], the Diné Bikéyah and the San Juan Alliance. These five were the locally generated proposals. B is the one that received the most comment from the public.”

The technical team presented findings from the public meetings to the commission on Feb. 17. The county is very interested in the Navajo co-management plan, Sandberg said.

“But the Diné Bikéyah map still needs to be defined and the wilderness quantified,” he said. “It includes two definitions of wilderness. The Navajo definition, as it is put forward in the key on the maps, Nahodihgish/Wilderness, may define allowances for activities that are different from a ‘Wilderness Act’ wilderness.”

A successful outcome

The San Juan County website hosts several proposals and accompanying maps, under the heading “Eastern Utah Lands Bill” on the home page.

Twenty-three stakeholder groups have submitted comments to the county. The only Native representation on the list is Diné Bikéyah. The remaining groups represent mostly environmental and recreational interests, and two strongly conservative points of view, including the San Juan Alliance, which states on its web site that it is a “group of concerned citizens who stand for State and County jurisdiction over present federal lands. The group proposes abolition of wilderness study areas and no designation of wilderness, national conservation area, national monument, national park or any other designation which would limit public access to the land. They seek to continue extracting materials and resources while conserving the natural beauty of the land.”

Prior to March 27, Noyes said, the Diné Bikéyah board will have to decide what should be designated wilderness and what will be part of the proposed NCA. “Those decisions are based on the data we collect from the people. In November 2014 we hosted eight town-hall meetings. It was incredible to witness the Navajo people testifying about how they use and value the land,” Noyes said.

“Our proposal is designed to protect the ancestral heritage and land uses through cultural input, to make sure the values are protected.”

As negotiations with the county and congressional representatives continue, Diné Bikéyah remains optimistic a successful outcome is possible. They do not know how much of their plan the commissioners will accept, Noyes said.

“We need to be actively engaged with the local level and the congressional delegation. It seems harder on the county level, but the local chapter houses have all passed resolutions in support of the Bear’s Ears National Conservation Area. Diné Bikéyah is working to make sure everybody knows what the Navajo people are asking for.”

‘Too big’

Adams says the complex process takes time.

“There are lots of users in our county, including the Navajo, White Mesa Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Paiutes,”Adams said. “We want what they want – that they can use the land as they have traditionally, but we don’t support their proposal the way it is right now. It’s too big. There’s too much wilderness, and they can’t rewrite the federal Wilderness Act —as someone is advising them incorrectly— to use the land in the way that only they want. It’s just not going to happen.”

The co-management plan suggested in the Diné Bikéyah proposal is a feature that can be melded with the other proposals to produce a refined alternative before the March 27 deadline, says Sandberg.

“The result could be something of a placeholder in Bishop’s lands bill so we can hopefully go on with the process.”

In the event the negotiations fail, both the Navajo Nation and Diné Bikéyah have agreed to press for a BLM-managed national monument for the area in question.

“We can promote this through our government-to-government relationship and our elected officials,” said Grayeyes.

“We have been to Washington to talk with the Council on Environmental Quality – the doorstep to the president. They seem to be very accepting of our [land use] proposal.”

“Everybody, including DB, would prefer the collaborative, legislative route,” Noyes said, “but if the Native interests are not included, we will ask President Obama to take action.”

From March 2015. Read similar stories about .