Utah rep wants mostly white part of county to secede from mostly Navajo part after lost election

Phil Lyman, a newly elected Republican lawmaker in the Utah House of Representatives, has a long history as a typical “Sagebrush Rebel” desirous of transferring federal lands into state hands. An avid supporter of Cliven Bundy and his gun-toting land-grabbers, in 2014, Lyman was a leader of an ATV protest ride on protected public lands that had been blocked to continued motorized traffic by Bureau of Land Management officials because riders were wrecking an area filled with fragile terrain and thousands of cultural artifacts of the Ancient Puebloans, the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail and three years’ probation for that action. 

San Juan County in red.

He was also an adamant foe of designating the Bears Ears region of San Juan County, Utah, a national monument. Not just the 1.3 million acres authorized by President Barack Obama in late 2016, or even the hatchet job approved by Donald Trump in 2017 that cut it to just 200,000 uncontiguous acres, a decision now being vigorously litigated: Lyman wanted not a single square inch of Bears Ears protected. Unprecedented Native input organized by the Navajo, Ute, Zuni, and Hopi Inter-Tribal Coalition had been key in bringing about the designation by Obama. The tribes, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and assorted other environmental advocates wanted a monument of 1.9 million acres. But they and the tribes got a big portion of the land most important to them included.

Now Lyman wants to divide sprawling San Juan County in two: one part that would be mostly white, and one part mostly Navajo. That’s his response to the federally mandated redrawing of county districts that in November led to the victory of two Navajo county commissioners, the first time the three-member commission has ever had a Native majority—and not just Native, but Democratic, after decades of white Republican rule. Lyman previously served two terms as a county commissioner from Blanding, the county’s largest community, with a population at the last census of 3,375. The entire county has a population of just over 15,000.

At the time of his swearing-in as a San Juan County commissioner last month, with Republicans vowing to challenge the shift, Navajo Willie Grayeyes told the Salt Lake Tribune, “It’s very, very hard to accept changes. [After] over two decades, maybe three decades, of the status quo, that’s what they’re used to.” And that’s what they think they’ve been entitled to since the conquest of the West. The Republicans had tossed Grayeyes off the November ballot because, they claimed, he wasn’t really a resident of Utah. He asserted that he is a resident of the Navajo Mountain community of the mostly rural Navajo Nation, which straddles Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. A federal judge agreed and restored his candidacy. 

But now Lyman wants to debate splitting the county. This requires a process that hasn’t happened in Utah since the sliver now called Daggett County was carved from Uintah County in 1917. Many people today think that was a mistake, because Daggett, with a population of just over 1,000, is economically unsustainable. 

The splitting process first requires a petition signed by at least a fourth of the residents of each portion of the county proposed for division. If enough names are gathered, the vote must include majorities in what would be the seceding county and what would be left of the old county. A Republican state legislator, Kim Coleman, has introduced a bill—HR93—to drop the requirement for a majority vote of residents in the existing part of the old county. Last week, over the objections of two Democrats, the House Government Operations Committee recommended the bill for a vote by the full House. Guess who gets screwed if the bill becomes law.

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