The players: Gavin Noyes, Utah Diné Bikéyah

Gavin Noyes, far right, with the board of directors of Utah Diné Bikéyah, including San Juan County commissioners Kenneth Maryboy, left, and Willie Grayeyes, third from left

Gavin Noyes, who has been affiliated with Utah Diné Bikéyah since its inception, was quoted by Taylor Stevens of the Salt Lake Tribune, as saying “You look at the county land plan that (the old Commission) just passed and it’s all about mining and grazing and, you know, multiple use,” Noyes said. “And I think that the Native American view of the land is really different than that. It’s all about sustainably interacting with the land. Using it, but in a way that’s pretty light. Light on the landscape. It’s not about extraction.”

In fact, most of the land inside the county is owned and managed by state, federal or tribal governments, much of it under multiple-use legal mandates. Many of the profitable mineral extraction opportunities and jobs they produce lie within the Aneth extension of the Navajo Nation, over which the county has no control. Much of what lies below is pumped up by Navajos themselves (many of whom work for the Navajo-owned Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company) then delivered to refineries via the Navajo-owned Running Horse Pipeline where it’s transformed into gasoline and pumped into Navajo-owned cars and trucks at Navajo-owned Navajo Petroleum gas stations.

Noyes’ comments — “Using it, but in a way that’s pretty light” — reflect Utah Diné Bikéyah’s current ideas on land use and economic development in one of the country’s poorest regions at least as much as they do about contemporary Native Americans’ complex connection to the natural world.

The comments are consistent with Kenneth Maryboy’s long-term support of tourism and UDB’s for-profit recreation-oriented benefactors helping to fund the campaign to restore Bears Ears National Monument to its former size. But they don’t necessarily mirror the views of most Navajos or Native Americans in general.

Maryboy was tapped as a lobbyist a couple of years ago to drum up support for what would’ve been a massive tourist development called the Grand Canyon Escalade at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, which many Navajos consider sacred. The project envisioned an aerial tram delivering as many as 10,000 people every day to the floor of the Grand Canyon, a riverwalk, amphitheater, food pavilion, Navajoland Discovery Center, hotels and recreational vehicle park. Delegates to the Navajo Nation Council voted it down.

Marley Shebala, a reporter for the Gallup (N.M.) Independent who writes out of Window Rock, Ariz., describes a contentious meeting on Nov. 14, 2016, of the Navajo Council’s Naa’bik’iyati’ Committee. It provides a glimpse of Maryboy’s priorities and political tactics.

Maryboy said that the Northern Navajo Medicine Men’s Association had appointed him chairman and that the group supported the Escalade. Law and Order Committee member Council Delegate Otto Tso challenged him, saying that, in fact, the Northern Navajo Medicine Men’s Association opposed the development, as did Diné Medicine Men’s Association, the Diné Hathali Association and the Naa’bik’iyati’ Committee’s Sacred Sites Subcommittee.

Tso told the Escalade developers, “If you want to build it, build it in your backyard. We don’t have to develop our sacred areas.”

Maryboy did not respond to Tso’s comments during the meeting.

President Obama’s larger version of Bears Ears National Monument would enhance prosperity for southeastern Utah, according to comments Noyes submitted to the Bureau of Land Management (June 2018 press release) regarding its management plan for President Trump’s smaller version of Bears Ears National Monument. Currently, Native American culture is insufficiently “monetized.”

Noyes suggested BLM consider what seems to be some sort of government jobs program.

“The BLM is a significant employer in San Juan County. UDB would like to see a process of community engagement to determine whether the Bears Ears visitor center should be located in Bluff, White Mesa, Mexican Hat, Blanding or other community. We also recommend that a great majority of new jobs that may arise if funding is adequately increased go to citizens who have the Native American cultural background to engage tourists and carry out law enforcement, monitoring, restoration, planning, as well as the highest level administrative positions.”

In a region with some of the nation’s highest unemployment rates regardless of race, Noyes prioritizes just one.

Noyes, in effect, was tapped by The Salt Lake Tribune as an informal spokesperson for the two incoming commissioners, his bosses at Utah Diné Bikéyah, and their economic development vision: an exclusive focus on tourism. He has no formal or advisory role in determining policy for San Juan County — at least not one that’s been publicly announced.

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Bill Keshlear

Keshlear lives in Salt Lake City and is a long-time newspaper journalist.