At the close of 2017, it is time to look back at a remarkable year. The year brought unprecedented awareness and focus on San Juan County. These are our top 15 stories of the year.
1- Sgt. Aaron Butler
As we discussed in the December 27 SJR, our story of the year is Sgt. Aaron Butler, a Special Forces soldier from Monticello who was killed in Afghanistan on August 16.
The elements of the story were compelling: the body of a fallen soldier returning home to a hero’s welcome; a motorcade route lined with thousands of local residents and hundreds of flags, yellow ribbons, and handmade signs; a stirring funeral and burial service with full military honors; the inspiring Butler family, and Aaron’s heartbroken fiancé.
The setting was remarkable: Monticello at the very height of its summer beauty.
This story is not just about Butler, but also about San Juan County and the family and community that raised him. It made me proud to be an American and proud to be from San Juan County.
2- Bears Ears
The issue: Bears Ears National Monument continues to be an enormous story in San Juan County. The year began with a new 1.35-million acre national monument that took nearly 28 percent of the landmass of San Juan County.
The year ended with a presidential proclamation that cut the monument by more than 85 percent and created two smaller units within Bears Ears: Shash Jaa and Indian Creek.
Looking ahead: A host of lawsuits have been filed in federal courts challenging the reduction of the monument. The fate of Bears Ears could be determined in court rooms thousands of miles from the actual land in question.
While there were political winners and losers in 2017, I hope the spectacular land itself will be the winner in 2018. It was an almost worse-case scenario in 2017, with unprecedented awareness and interest in Bears Ears and no infrastructure or direction to manage it.
Clarity for management and increased budget resources should help address the actual challenges on the ground.
3- Voting rights
The issue: New voting districts for the San Juan County Commission and San Juan School Board have been created by Federal Judge Robert Shelby, the result of two lawsuits filed by the Navajo Nation.
Despite the fact that Native Americans make up a majority of San Juan County residents, there has never been more than one Native American Commissioner on the three-member county commission, or more than two Native Americans on the five-member school board.
The new voting districts create Native American majorities in two of the Commission districts and three of the school board districts.
Looking ahead: While a final decision has yet to be made, San Juan County officials have signaled an intent to appeal the ruling by Judge Shelby.
Judge Shelby has indicated that all eight commission and school board seats will be on the November ballot in an election that will influence the course of local government.
San Juan County faces high attorney fees to defend the lawsuit. In addition, it is expected that the Navajo Nation will request that San Juan County pay up to $2.5 million in their attorney fees.
In other voting rights lawsuits, a trial date is set this winter for a third lawsuit. This one challenges the way San Juan County administers elections, with particular focus on mail-only ballots.
The issue: Voters in the Bluff area approved the incorporation of the community, meaning that San Juan County’s oldest town will now become the county’s newest city.
In addition, the smallest city in the county (just 265 residents) will become the largest city in the county with a footprint of 38 square miles. In contrast, Monticello and Blanding together cover just over 15 square miles.
Looking ahead: It will be a busy 2018 for Bluff, as the process moves ahead to formalize the incorporation decision. Elections will be held in June for a new mayor and city council.
5- Sheriff charged
The issue: San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge and his two top deputies faced a host of charges filed by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. The charges, which allege retaliation against a witness, reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice and official misconduct, were dismissed after an August 25 preliminary hearing before Seventh District Judge George Harmond.
The credibility of local law enforcement was under a cloud for the six months until the charges were dismissed.
In December, the Attorney General signaled an intention to appeal the ruling.
Looking ahead: The appeal will make its way through the legal system. While it is very unusual for charges of this magnitude to be dismissed so early in the judicial process, the preliminary hearing clearly showed that there are significant problems with the Attorney General’s charges.
6- Blanding Booze
The issue: Voters settled the issue of alcohol sales in Blanding with a resounding no as two-thirds oppose alcohol on the November ballot. City government grappled with economic development and opposition to Bears Ears National Monument.
Looking ahead: New Mayor Joe B. Lyman takes the helm. Alcohol issues seems to be settled for a very long time.
7- Property taxes drop
The issue: Local property taxes dropped in 2017, largely the result of how the Latigo Wind Farm is classified on the tax rolls. For a home with an assessed value of $150,000, the drop in property tax is more than $100 for a home in Monticello and more than $80 in Blanding.
The new wind farm, north of Monticello, was classified as a reassessment of existing property rather than as new growth.
Looking ahead: The impact of the wind farm on tax rates will be ongoing.
8- Massive growth in San Juan County?
The issue: The US Census reports that San Juan County grew faster than any other county in the United States in the past year, an assertion that leaves local residents scratching their heads in confusion.
Figures released by the US Census state that San Juan County grew by an astounding 7.5 percent between July 1, 2015 and July 1, 2016. That represents growth of 1,188 new residents.
The problem is, there is little or no evidence that nearly 1,200 people moved into the county in that time frame. Between 2015 and 2016, enrollment in area schools dropped by 35 students.
Looking ahead: The 2020 Census is the next official head count of county residents. Until then, the federal agency relies on statistical models to predict growth.
If anyone is aware of any significant real growth in any area of San Juan County, please let us know at the San Juan Record. Otherwise, we assume the information is unsubstantiated and faulty.
9- Education in San Juan County
The issue: The Utah State University–Eastern campus in Blanding marked 40 years of providing higher education to this remote corner of the state. There were a series of events and celebrations to mark the anniversary.
In the San Juan School District, Ron Nielson was named interim superintendent after Dr. Ed Lyman resigned as superintendent after less than one year on the job.
Looking ahead: The school district is expected to name a permanent superintendent in 2018. In addition, the district is making real progress on securing a site for a new Bluff Elementary School at the fairgrounds.
10- Economic Development
The issue: Economic development efforts stall as longtime San Juan County Economic Development Director Charlie DeLorme is terminated.
Over the previous year, Commissioners expressed growing concern about the economic development efforts in the county, outside of the tourism sector. Natalie Randall, who had worked for the City of Monticello, was hired to replace DeLorme.
Looking ahead: Randall is pulling together her team and beginning work on expanded economic development and tourism promotion efforts. Andy Platt has accepted a new position in the department.
11- Health Care
The issue: In the distant past, turmoil and uncertainty was all too often the primary news coming from the local health care community. This year, outside of winning awards, expanding services, hiring new employees, building new facilities, and growing cooperation between local entities, not much has happened!
Looking ahead: New facilities are set to be open, including a beautiful new Utah Navajo Health Systems facility in Montezuma Creek and a new headquarters for public health, mental health and clinic services in Blanding.
12- High school sports
The issue: New alignments are announced for high school sports and activities in the state.
Despite being the smallest school in the classification, the San Juan Bronco girls cross country team brings home a championship trophy in San Juan’s first state competition in 3A.
Monticello Buckaroo boys also bring home the 1A trophy.
San Juan High fielded its first soccer team.
Looking ahead: Local teams hope to build on the success of the fall campaigns.
13- White Mesa Mill
The issue: The Energy Fuels White Mesa Mill, the only federally-licensed uranium processing mill in the United States, continues to face challenges from environmental groups even as it seeks to expand its business. A longstanding lawsuit against the mill was dismissed.
In 2017, the mill held its first open house since 1980 and signaled an intention to be more transparent.
Looking ahead: The BLM is expected to issue rulings on Energy Fuels projects at the La Sal Mines Complex and the Daneros mines
In addition to processing uranium ore from area mines, Energy Fuels is considering additional opportunities, including extracting copper and vanadium, helping in the cleanup of abandoned mines in the area, and processing additional “alternative feed” materials from other sources.
The issue: Monticello hires Doug Wright as the new city manager after Ty Bailey accepts a position in Morgan, UT. Parks and Recreation Director Natalie Randall leaves to a new position with San Juan County and is replaced by Jeremy Avondet.
Looking ahead: Monticello faces ongoing challenges related to economic development, water development and infrastructure needs.
The issue: It was a normal water year, for the most part, with a dry winter and spring and a strong monsoon season. However, the spigot turned off in the fall, and San Juan has been dry for the subsequent three months.
The most recent Drought Monitor classifies “Severe Drought” for most of San Juan County.
Looking ahead: Unless the snow pack changes dramatically in the coming months, it could be a dry year for San Juan County, with severely impacted farming and ranching operations, as well as limited water for municipal use. Current conditions are as dry as anyone remembers.
Catholic Church: The new St Joseph Catholic Church in Monticello is dedicated by Bishop Oscar A. Solis. The church also welcomes a new priest from Nigeria, Father Rowland Nwokocha.
Environmental activists: A prominent environmental activist, Rose Chilcoat, faces charges of felony attempted wanton destruction of livestock, and trespassing on trust lands on April 1, 2017.
Chilcoat, who served as executive director of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, allegedly closed a gate to a corral on Lime Ridge. A January 31 trial date is set in Monticello.
Scott Boyle mission: Longtime San Juan Record columnist Scott Boyle, and his wife Cassie, went as far away from San Juan County as you can get to serve an LDS Mission in Madagascar. They faced the challenge of evacuating the mission after an outbreak of the plague in Madagascar.
Deadman Canyon: Two new local residents, who desperately want to remain unnamed, thought they had discovered a shortcut from Farmington, NM to Monticello by using the online travel aide.
Unfortunately, the shortcut led them through McElmo Canyon and up Montezuma Canyon during the middle of the mud season on February 6. The quest to save time finally ended with a hopelessly stuck vehicle in Deadman Canyon, of all places.
After spending a cold night in the truck, the pair hiked six miles in the wrong direction before they found a cell signal and were able to call for help.
After waiting a day for conditions to dry and for the early morning cold to stiffen the mud, it took several hours of work before Monticello’s Mud Team Six – including Paul and Michelle Sonderegger, Terrell Slade, Helaman Tate, Todd Westcott, and Todd Adair – were able to dig out the stuck vehicle.
Best advise during mud season: Just play it safe, and stay on the paved roads.