Navajo Utah Commission hears reports on road needs in Aneth
by David Boyle
Members of the Navajo Utah Commission gathered three separate entities with responsibilities and interest to maintain roads on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation at a September 2 meeting.
Although no formal action was taken by the commission due to a lack of quorum at the end of the meeting, the gathering did provide an opportunity for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Navajo Nation Division of Transportation (NDOT) and San Juan County to report to the Navajo Utah Commission.
Members of the Navajo Utah Commission met in a special session on September 2 to discuss the issue of road maintenance on the Navajo Utah strip.
In January of 2022 the Aneth Chapter passed a resolution requesting by petition to remove NDOT of their duties maintaining the Navajo routes within Aneth Chapter.
The petition notes residents’ frustrations with the status of roads used daily by community members to access school, commute for medical services and transportation on needed essentials.
Members of the Navajo Utah Commission considered adding their support of the resolution by vote.
At the conclusion of the meeting three members of the commission voted in favour of that support but a fourth member of the commission’s technical difficulties meant the meeting lost a quorum and the resolution did not officially pass with a three-to-zero vote.
At the meeting Aneth Chapter Vice President Elmerson Phillips expressed frustration with the lack of solutions to the on the ground needs of road grading.
“We go round and round and round. I don’t know if that’s to sugar coat the problem but our people are suffering. When are we going to realize that?”
In 2018, the San Juan County Road Department was notified that it did not have a right of way to maintain the roads it historically maintained on the reservation since that time the county, BIA and NDOT reached an agreement to have the county maintain some roads that school buses travel with reimbursement coming to the county for that work.
Speaking at the meeting, Phillips asked for one of the agencies to take responsibility for the roads. “There are three different agents here: Navajo Nation, BIA and San Juan County. Somebody has to be able to take responsibility on.”
Aneth Chapter President Wesley Jones gave his support of the resolution, as did Aneth Secretary/Treasurer Brenda Brown who also sits on the Navajo Utah Commission.
Fellow commissioners Kenny Victor and Curtis Yanito expressed support of the Aneth resolution and working to address road needs for Utah residents.
At the meeting Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Division of Transportation Garret Silversmith reported that road blading by his department is funded by two different schedules.
One provided by federal funds and the other schedule is funded by the Fuel Excise Tax charged on gas purchases made on the Navajo Nation.
NDOT has federal funds to grade 15 miles of road each quarter for each of the 110 chapters on the Navajo Nation.
Silversmith shared that in their most recent complete quarter, NDOT reported blading 62.4 miles in accumulation in both schedules.
In addition to highlighting other projects in Aneth. Silversmith also shared at the commission that the routes are not owned by NDOT.
“These routes are owned by BIA and they have a responsibility to blade the routes, not only them but also us NDOT. so it’s a collection of two entities that blade these routes both the BIA and NDOT.”
Silversmith said ultimately the division will respect the decision of the commission and would aid in maintenance of roads regardless of who oversaw roads on Navajo Utah.
Silversmith added that his division has been busy the past few weeks working with agencies like the BIA, and state and county road departments responding to monsoon season washouts across the Navajo Nation.
Speaking at the meeting BIA representative Alfred Reed shared that his office’s agreement with San Juan County had expired this year and an updated agreement was sent to San Juan County in February for maintenance of 60 miles of paved roads and 81 miles of earth roads.
Reed shared his office had not yet received a response from San Juan County regarding the agreement.
At the meeting San Juan County Administrator Mack McDonald shared that he hadn’t received anything on his end, asking for the agreements to be forwarded to him directly.
McDonald added once they receive the agreement they’ll place it on the next commission meeting agenda. “I know that our commissioners are super responsive and continue to be willing to maintain BIA routes, and Navajo Nation routes that are given to us and so we’ll definitely act on it.”
McDonald added that the county has had some transitions with employees and was unsure if communications were being sent to previous employees, but that the county staff is responsive and the issue would be addressed.
At the meeting Brown, Victor, and Yanito voted in favour of supporting the Aneth chapter resolution, with pro-tem chair Herman Farley not voting. Technical difficulties for commissioner Patricia Blackhorn meant the vote failed when the meeting lost a quorum.