An Interview with Kay Shumway

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Residents of San Juan County, Utah — home to Bears Ears National Monument — have long held conflicting views regarding efforts to protect public lands within county borders. During the battle to have the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands surrounding the eponymous twin buttes protected as a national monument, in October 2016 the three-member San Juan County Commission voted unanimously to oppose the monument. Rebecca Benally, who is Navajo, joined Commissioners Phil Lyman and Bruce Adams, both Anglo, in opposing the monument, arguing that her vote captured the views of a majority of the Native population in the County. (Members of the Native-led nonprofit Utah Dine Bikeyah and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition begged to differ.) 

The commission’s action, along with the opposition of Utah’s Republican governor and congressional representatives, played a decisive role in President Trump’s December 2017 executive order reducing by 85 percent the area protected by President Obama’s late 2016 declaration of the original Bears Ears National Monument. Trump’s action, while welcomed warmly by many residents of the county, was received as a slap in the face by many Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute residents of San Juan County, as well as by tribes outside Utah who supported the monument and trace their ancestry to the Bears Ears region. 

In 2018, San Juan County elected two new commissioners following US District Judge Richard Shelby's order to adjust the boundaries of the three commission districts. According to the new federally-mandated boundaries in the majority Native American population County,  Commission District 1 will have a Native population of 11.1 percent; District 2 will have a Native population of 65.6 percent; and District 3 will have a Native population of 79.9 percent. Following a watershed election in November 2018, the commission now comprises two Navajo members — Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy — along with long-serving commissioner Bruce Adams.

In February 2019, the new commission passed a resolution condemning President Trump for reducing the size of the monument, arguing that in doing so, he violated the Antiquities Act. Not surprisingly, given the divisions in San Juan County, the vote was met with both celebration and strong denunciation.

At the end of March, we reached Blanding resident Kay Shumway, whose family's ties to the region date back six generations. 

Kay and Patsy Shumway

Kay and Patsy Shumway

Shumway, who is an Anglo Mormon, feels strongly that the court-imposed redistricting was intended "to punish the people of Blanding, pure and simple." He argues that the new Commission district boundaries in San Juan County have diluted the voices of Blanding residents, as the city population is now divided among three districts. Prior to the 2018 election, the predominantly conservative  population of the town of 3700 (the largest in San Juan County) had the dominant voice in electing a string of Anglo Commissioners. The federally-mandated change in district boundaries was particularly searing to Anglo residents of Blanding who remain deeply wounded by the 2009 FBI raid of city residents accused of looting Native archaeological sites. 

Despite his negative reaction to the redistricting decision, Kay had hoped that the new commission might take steps to heal some of the divisions that have made politics in San Juan County fraught for generations. Instead, “the first thing that Kenneth and Willie did was to rescind some of the county’s earlier resolutions. That was their first jump out of the starting gate.” He noted as well that “there have been many 2-1 votes along the Native/Anglo divide. The commission has proven to be quite narrow in interpretation of what they are doing. The two Navajos seem to represent Navajo interests. That’s what we’re seeing on a regular basis.”

Kay is unsure about the new commission’s attitudes regarding oil and gas development in the eastern part of the county, much of it on reservation land. “On the reservation, oil wells are the lifeblood of the communities. [They] create jobs and opportunities. If they didn’t have oil and gas development, they’d be a lot worse off than they are.” He lamented the role of "outside" groups in opposing such development. “The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Grand Canyon Trust have no limits on their desire to stop any energy production in San Juan County. They are hell bent on stopping development. How are we going to pay for education, for the best schools, the best teachers, computers, without income from oil wells, uranium mines, copper mines and so on. Without income from energy, what will happen to needed support for Navajo education?” 

In the same vein, Kay was critical of the opposition of Bluff, Utah-based nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa and the town of Bluff to a project aimed at placing a photo-voltaic solar farm on Bluff Bench, a series of mesas above Cow Canyon. Kay finds it ironic that environmentalists who oppose oil and gas exploration in the region are also arrayed against the solar farm.

Turning to the current state of discussions regarding management of public lands in San Juan County, Kay again felt that the voices of local citizens living closest to the land were not being heard by the BLM and US Forest Service. “We’re not being contacted by [the agencies] as people, and talked to about our concerns. Now they have these open houses — they are swamped by people with different views than the locals have.  I felt like I was among the few representing local folks.” [NB: It should be noted that not all locals share Kay's views regarding public land uses].

Representatives and acolytes of outdoor outfitters such as REI, North Face and Patagonia were, in Kay’s view, dominating the meetings and advocating views that he thought would lead to “industrial tourism. They want to make sure that they can sell the right shoes, the right pants, the right jacket to visit these places. They want more people buying more of the equipment to go out there.” He expressed a view held by many, including some in the environmental community, that advertising the area would bring crowds of people — something that was anathema to him and other people in San Juan County. 

Even more concerning than having his voice overwhelmed by outsiders, Shumway believes that the BLM and the Forest Service continue to make decisions without adequate input. As one example, he cited a recent change to the rules regarding camping near Elk Mountain, “an area that is sacred to me. I go out there to pray, take photographs, enjoy the land. [In years past], you and your family found your own spot under a ponderosa or an Aspen grove, and camped out for two or three days or a week. Now the BLM says there will be no more open camping.”

Instead, the BLM is building a formal campground where Kay anticipates that, rather than freedom to find peace away from it all, there will be folks crowding together and diminishing what President Obama’s monument proclamation called ‘the rare and arresting quality of deafening silence’.

Kay’s comments reflect the three themes that emerged from discussions with more than 70 sources in the course of our assembling the material for Voices from Bears Ears: (1) the land around Bears Ears is of great cultural and spiritual significance to those on both sides of the debate regarding its future status; (2) there is deep concern about the economic future of San Juan County — the poorest in Utah — and the role of public lands in that future; and (3) that voices — both Anglo and Native — are either not heard or are disrespected.

Until people like Kay believe that their voices and views are heard, that there is a clear path to a viable economic future, and that cultural and spiritual attachment to the land is respected and embraced, discussions regarding Bears Ears — and, indeed, all public lands — will continue to be fraught and contentious.