Bear Ears: San Juan County - A Road to Renewal?

San Juan County: A Road to Renewal?

Prose by Rebecca Robinson + Photos by Stephen Strom

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Bears Ears: A Series Set in Southeast Utah


This post is the third in a series on the designation of Bears Ears National Monument and the debate surrounding its future and the economic future of the communities in southeast Utah.
New to the Bears Ears saga? Read the August 2016 feature by Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom on the people and politics behind the monument creation and opposition, as well as their recent Letter to America.
As with any place worth exploring, it is impossible to quantify the beauty of San Juan County’s landscapes, or the richness of its indigenous and Anglo cultures. But the debate over the designation of Bears Ears National Monument encompassed more than just the county’s ineffable qualities; it brought to the fore the county’s economic struggles, and how choices its leaders make in the near future could help or hinder its fortunes for years to come.

Demographic data from 2015 tell a grim story: 28.1 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, nearly double the national average; the median household income–roughly $41,000–is about 30 percent lower than the state median. The poverty rates are far higher and wages far lower among the Native American population, which comprises half the county’s residents. A more recent statistic is cause for cautious optimism. San Juan County’s population increased by 7.56 percent between 2015 and 2016, ranking it as the fastest-growing county in the U.S.

The designation of Bears Ears National Monument has brought greater attention to the role tourism can play in sustainable economic growth, and many in the county embrace the opportunity to build a future centered around recreation and hospitality. Yet attachment to legacy economic drivers–mining, ranching, oil and gas extraction–can make it difficult for the county’s leadership to fully embrace this future.

Bruce Adams
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams.
Photo courtesy San Juan County.

“People are pretty attached to extractive industries because extraction has been the way that the people in this county have been able to survive here,” says San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, who in his retirement manages his family’s ranch. He acknowledges that ranching, once a cornerstone of the county’s economy and a core component of its cultural identity, will not be a key economic driver moving forward.

When asked whether one of his six children would one day take over the ranch, he shook his head. “I’m the end,” Adams says. “All of [my children] make a good living at what they’re doing. It would be a step down to come back and ranch.”

Despite his public statements supporting continued resource extraction in the county, Adams also sees the need for an economic plan that looks toward new sources of revenue. Investment in infrastructure projects such as the Latigo Wind Park, which began operation in Monticello in the fall of 2015 and the culmination of a 14-year joint effort by county leaders and San Juan Record publisher Bill Boyle, could represent the vanguard of future economic development.

Valley of the Gods
Valley of the Gods.
Photo by Stephen Strom, with thanks to Light Hawk Conservation Flying.

Thanks to a comprehensive analysis by Ogden-based consulting firm Better City, there is a template for economic development that can guide decision-making, if elected officials choose to embrace it. In 2015, Better City completed a report with a detailed analysis of economic activity in San Juan County and strategies for sustainable growth. The report is frank about challenges the county faces, including a lack of reliable cell phone service, broadband internet, and even electricity for many residences on the Utah portion of the Navajo reservation.

Linda Gillmor, who directs the Governor’s Office of Rural Development, says there are ample resources for economic planning available to rural counties around the state, but the decision-making is left to residents.

Linda Gillmor
Linda Gillmor, Director of the Governor’s Office of Rural Development.
Photo courtesy

“We encourage communities to plan,” Gillmor says. “We stress the importance of not just asking a third party to come in and look at it from an outside perspective, but rather urge the community to meet together a number of times, get diverse representation, and then come up with an economic plan and then have the community members take ownership of those results.”

One such program that places community input at the center of planning efforts is the Area Sector Analysis Program (ASAP), administered by the state in collaboration with the Western Rural Development Center. ASAP consultants work with local residents and elected leaders to identify a community’s priorities for economic development and evaluate its existing resources, strengths, and limitations. San Juan County began its own ASAP process last month, encouraging residents to complete a survey about economic development and priorities for the county.

Gillmor says this type of inclusive, multi-stakeholder process promotes citizen buy-in.

“If one person or two people decide what the county’s going do for economic development and then they try to start it, anybody who didn’t feel like they were heard” will not want to participate, Gillmor says. “You’re going to get people with divergent views, but if these groups come together eight or ten times” there is a good chance that they can create a plan based on compromise.

She emphasizes that the key to a prosperous future in San Juan County is a multi-industry economy that can withstand the volatile cycles that characterize extractive industries.

“I would never negate the extraction industry or ranching, because those are part of the history of [San Juan County], just as Bears Ears is,” Gillmor says. “We always encourage any economic development effort in a community to look at diversification. You don’t want just one industry.”

Mesas: Lime Ridge in winter
Mesas: Lime Ridge in winter.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

The Better City report notes that extractive industries, though in long-term decline, continue to be the largest contributor to the county’s tax revenue. The hoped-for rebirth of the oil industry was key to motivating a small but vocal group of San Juan County residents to oppose the monument. This group, which included members of the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, feared that a monument designation would eliminate jobs and restrict access to minerals. The opposition was particularly acute in the Navajo Nation community of Aneth, the center of the county’s oil operations.

Merri Black Shumway, a realtor and member of the local school district board, is a lifelong resident of Blanding. Her father, Calvin Black, was a uranium miner and county commissioner from 1967-1990, and became an outspoken proponent of the mining industry, an archenemy of environmentalists, and the inspiration for the villainous Bishop Love in Edward Abbey’s classic The Monkey Wrench Gang. His views inform her preference for a multiple-use approach to managing public lands.

“There needs to be a balance,” Shumway says. “We need tourism… [but] if we have jobs in energy, they’re very well-paying jobs. This area will always be worth seeing and recreating in. So we can have the tourists, but we would like to be able to sustain ourselves economically with energy resources. In the ’50s and ’60s, San Juan County was the second wealthiest county in the state. That’s when all the buildings were built, that’s the way to pay for things we all depend on.”

Nick Sandberg
San Juan County Planner Nick Sandberg.
Photo courtesy San Juan Record.

Mining and oil and gas corporations employed about 530 people in San Juan County in 2015–out of a population of 16,895. The continued reverence for these jobs reflects a cultural nostalgia for a more prosperous time, when extractive industries reigned supreme–a nostalgia that, consciously or not, ignores the devastating busts that crippled the local economy. Renowned historian and Center of the American West Director Patty Limerick has called for “a ‘nostalgia blocker’ that would permit clear-eyed appraisals of the stability and vulnerability of extractive industries and tourist enterprises.”

Nick Sandberg, the county planner, has been working to envision a future that looks beyond resource extraction.

“The county recognizes that tourism is… part of our portfolio, [and] we want to diversify,” Sandberg says. “Even though minerals and energy have been the biggest tax base, that can be a boom-bust economy”–one that is driven in part by global markets and other external factors outside the county’s control. “The county just wants to keep all options open for the benefit of the residents.”

Next in the Series: Tourism is touted as San Juan County’s most promising industry. What will it take to make a tourist economy succeed?



Rebecca RobinsonRebecca Robinson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer. She has written for numerous print and online news outlets about crime, education, health care, social entrepreneurs, California’s prisons, state and federal medical marijuana laws, and homelessness, among other topics. She began her work on the manuscript for Views from the Colorado Plateau at the 2015 Fishtrap Summer Gathering of Writers. Currently a freelancer, Rebecca previously worked as a staff writer for Monterey County Weekly and a radio producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Stephen StromStephen Strom spent 45 years as a research astronomer after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in astronomy from Harvard. He began photographing in 1978, after studying the history of photography and silver and non-silver photography at the University of Arizona. His work has been exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and is held in several permanent collections, including the Center for Creative Photography and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His photography complements poems and essays in three books published by the University of Arizona Press–Secrets from the Center of the World, Sonoita Plain, and Tseyi / Deep in the Rock—and Otero Mesa (University of New Mexico Press, 2008). A monograph, Earth Forms, was published in 2009 by Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Header photo of the Valley of the Gods, Utah by Stephen Strom. Photo of Rebecca Robinson by Peter Crabtree. Photo of Stephen Strom courtesy Stephen Strom. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.