An Interview with Gavin Noyes of Utah Dine Bikeyah

Gavin Noyes UDB

Much of the opposition to Bears Ears National Monument among residents of San Juan County, Utah — home to the disputed monument — derives from the belief that a national monument would negatively impact the potential for economic growth. Opponents believe that a monument would preclude the expansion of ranching and extractive industries - mining, oil and gas development - which in the past served as engines of the economy but today contribute less than 10 percent of the county’s tax revenue.

Supporters counter that a monument could serve as a focal point for increasing jobs and revenue in the tourism and outdoor recreation sectors and stimulate the growth of small businesses, thereby helping to broaden the economic base of the only county in Utah described as a "persistent poverty" area. 

While the fate of Bears Ears awaits the outcome of litigation, one of the proponents of the monument designation — the nonprofit Utah Dine Bikeyah (UDB), whose Native-led efforts to preserve land and culture helped secure protection of Bears Ears — has initiated efforts aimed at working with San Juan County officials to identify potential paths toward a more robust economic future. 

In an interview earlier this month, UDB Executive Director Gavin Noyes, discussed the organization’s efforts. 

Noyes spoke first to the importance of county-wide infrastructure improvements, with emphasis on improving high-speed broadband. 

“Lack of broadband is a real barrier to economic growth," Noyes said. "Better broadband would allow people and businesses to work remotely and allow many young people who would otherwise leave the county to remain closer to home”. 

Noyes also emphasized the potential benefits of starting a tribal electrical cooperative that would bring solar-powered electrical service to homes on the Utah strip of the Navajo Reservation, 40 percent of which still lack connection to the electrical grid. Moreover, he noted, “Many areas, particularly in the southern part of the county, lack quality roads, making access to and from emerging businesses challenging."

Noyes sees opportunities for Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute tribes to establish outlets for the many talented Native artists in the county. One possibility is developing a cultural center, where artists could display their works and host gatherings that would attract visitors and potential clients.

“To make this work will require cooperation among county residents, the County Commission, tribes, and the state of Utah," Noyes noted. UDB has volunteered to work across the county and to share their expertise in service of promoting economic growth. 

“We have already worked with aspiring tribal entrepreneurs — mostly artists at this stage — and see the need for more training as well as capital to incubate nascent businesses.”

Noyes is optimistic that there is support for UDB’s efforts at the Utah congressional and state levels, within the tribes, and within some parts of the San Juan County political establishment.  He sees a county-wide discussion of economic opportunity as a way to bring together factions that have been at odds over the fate of Bears Ears. 

“Everyone will benefit from a plan to diversify the economy of San Juan County," Noyes said. "It will take time to bring people together. But UDB is eager to help and play a role.”