Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

In Navajo Nation, Bad Roads Can Mean Life or Death

Native Americans who live on the reservation in Utah are used to having to fight for basic government services. But they’d at least like roads that can reliably transfer patients to the ER and kids to school.

01_Utah 0200s
For the first 45 minutes of William Mustache’s afternoon route, his school bus travels comfortably down the highway that runs the length of San Juan County, Utah. It starts at the high school in Blanding, which, with 3,400 residents, is the biggest town in a county nearly the size of New Jersey. Mustache, a Navajo man wearing a black track jacket and a bright yellow ball cap, waits for students to climb aboard before he pulls the bus out behind several others and follows them to the highway. The miles tick by quickly as Mustache’s new Bluebird bus passes the uranium mill just outside town, the cattle grazing among juniper bushes on federal land, and the multicolored bands of distant mesas. The road tips downward at steep grades as it descends into a vast expanse of sage-stubbled desert. Then come the bluffs. Sharp turns around towering stone structures mark a change, not just in geology, but in sovereignty.

As Mustache and the dozen teenagers on his bus make their way down Mexican Water Road, they enter the Navajo Nation Reservation. There’s no sign marking the transition, but it is apparent soon enough. Mustache turns off the highway, and the pavement gives way to a patchwork of gravel and plain dirt, which in this area is a wind-whipped, superfine sand. Driving over it bounces and shakes the bus. “It rattles your brains,” Mustache says. Even at 20 mph, the bus raises a cloud of dust. The bus stops. A single student ducks her head as she gets out and walks down a lonely driveway. The diesel engine growls, the tires kick up a few rocks and a red haze rises. Mustache and his bus head for their next stop, a mile down the road. The trip lasts another hour. 

Utah Navajos are divided on many things, but one thing they agree on is that their roads are unbearable. Mostly composed of dirt, they’re treacherous in good weather and frequently impassable after heavy rains or snows. In 2015, San Juan County canceled 10 days of classes in a single semester because of poor road conditions. Heavy ambulances must stop where roads are flooded and wait for passersby with four-wheel drive to ferry paramedics and equipment to their patients. People who need chronic medical attention, like kidney dialysis, often miss their appointments. And it’s hard for people to get to work in far-off towns.

The maddening question is why the reservation roads in this county remain in such deplorable condition. “The conflict over the roads issue is typical of many of the service problems experienced by Utah Navajos,” says Daniel McCool, a political scientist at the University of Utah. “Government-provided services, or the lack of them, has been characterized for decades by a very clear game of pass-the-buck, and the roads are no exception to this.

“There is a long history of the county trying to get the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] or some other federal agency, or the Navajo Nation, or the state of Utah, to pay for roads,” McCool adds. “The Navajo Nation, the federal government and the state all assume that some other level of government is providing services.”

The failure of governments to provide Native Americans with basic services that whites take for granted is nothing new -- in San Juan County or the rest of the country. San Juan, which is split almost evenly between whites and Native Americans, is in the throes of several disputes that have heightened racial tensions. But the county is in a unique position to find a solution on the road issue. The leaders at all levels of government in the state -- from the Republican governor down to the predominantly Democratic chapter officials -- have drafted a flurry of plans to build better roads on the reservation. And court-ordered changes to county electoral boundaries could soon give Navajos more political sway. Yet it remains uncertain whether all this can produce a better result, or whether local controversies and institutional inertia will prevent progress again.

But what is certain is that only a fifth of the roads on the reservation are paved. Only a tiny fraction are even covered with gravel. The rest are just dirt. Bad roads are part of reservation life across the United States. But for Navajos in San Juan County, it’s especially bad.  

When Rebecca Benally joined the three-member San Juan County Commission in 2015, road improvement was her top priority. Benally lives on the reservation, and the district she represents is overwhelmingly Navajo. San Juan County occupies the southeastern corner of Utah, and Navajo land takes up nearly a quarter of the county’s area -- it’s a 120-mile-long strip along its southern edge. As a former teacher and school administrator, Benally’s seen firsthand the impact of kids missing school because of bad roads. That’s one reason she chose to focus on it. Of the 627 miles of road on the Utah side of the reservation, Benally wants to prioritize the 87 miles of school bus routes that are still unpaved, and upgrade them at least to gravel. That would cost roughly $18 million. The county’s total annual budget is $12 million. “Navajo students have the same constitutional right to get to school as all other students in Utah,” Benally says. “These rights can’t be a reality without the building and maintenance of safe roads.”


William Mustache must navigate harsh roads to pick up and drop off students on the reservation. His bus route lasts nearly two hours each way.

Even if San Juan County had the money, though, making those upgrades isn’t as simple as sending county construction crews out to lay down gravel. One of the biggest obstacles is that the county doesn’t own any of the roads itself. Reservation land is held in trust by the federal government for the use of the Navajo people. So the vast majority of reservation roads are owned by either the Navajo Nation or the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), while the state of Utah owns several highways and other paved roads. 

The county does take care of many dirt roads that the BIA owns. In the past, San Juan County crews took a fairly expansive approach toward maintaining the roads, including leveling lanes, adding gravel and chip seal, and setting up county warning signs and road markers. The crews also upgraded roads when and where they could. The result was that the county was spending far more on the roads than it was receiving in reimbursements from the BIA -- sometimes $1 million a year. Until 2012, though, the federal government reimbursed the county $500,000 a year for its work on reservation bus routes. But that amount dropped to $90,000 a year when Congress let the Indian School Bus Route Maintenance Program expire.  

Federal highway money does flow to the Navajo Nation, which decides where to spend it. But Benally says the Utah portion of the reservation sees almost nothing of that money. The Navajo Nation Reservation, which sprawls across three states -- Utah, Arizona and New Mexico -- is by far the biggest Indian reservation in the United States. More than 173,000 Navajos call it home, but only about 7,000 of them live in San Juan County. For the last five years, the Arizona-based tribal transportation department hasn’t approved a single major road improvement project in Utah, and its current five-year plan doesn’t include one either. “There is funding,” Benally says. “It just doesn’t reach Utah, especially on the reservation.”

So Benally and other state and local leaders turned to Congress for help. First, they tried to reinstate the bus route maintenance program in a 2015 transportation law, but the change didn’t make the final cut. Then they enlisted U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who represented the area in Congress, to find another way. He included $1.5 million of funding to improve dirt roads on reservations in an appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of the Interior. It passed the U.S. House, but that effort faltered when the Interior Department said that, if the money was appropriated, it would have to be split among all of the tribes in the country, which would leave the Utah Navajo with only a minuscule portion of it. With few other options left, the Utah congressional delegation pushed for the federal Government Accountability Office to study the link between poor reservation roads and Native American school attendance. 

In the meantime, the situation on the Utah strip of the reservation keeps getting worse. The BIA has made clear that it doesn’t want the county crews doing much more than smoothing out the dirt roads four times a year. That means, for example, that the crews can find nearby rocks to fill holes in a road, but they can’t add gravel or change the elevation of a road by more than a few inches. The BIA has little choice but to rely on San Juan County for road maintenance since it doesn’t have enough manpower or equipment on the Navajo reservation to take care of the roads itself. The most recent agreement between the agency and the county increases the federal reimbursement for local work on those roads, but it doesn’t come close to covering the full cost. So the roads continue to deteriorate.    

Utah Navajos haven’t fared much better when they’ve turned to their tribal government for help. On roads and many other issues, they often feel overlooked by the Navajo leadership.

A few numbers show why. The Navajo Nation’s legislative body has 24 delegates. Only two of them represent people living in Utah. The reservation is also divided into 110 units of local government, called chapters. Utah has seven of these. 

When San Juan residents complain that the Navajo Nation Division of Transportation and the feds are neglecting their portion of the reservation, as they did at a recent meeting in Monument Valley, tribal and agency officials respond that they need consensus on what projects to fund first. But agreement is hard to reach. The far western section of the Utah strip, Navajo Mountain, is only accessible via a long detour through Arizona, so its residents want shorter routes to the rest of the county. In the east, people in the Aneth chapter worry about the damage that heavy trucks servicing oil wells are having on their roads. Other residents want the school buses to come down their lanes, so they or their relatives don’t have to drive to a major thoroughfare every afternoon to wait for their children to be dropped off. With scarce resources, it’s hard to satisfy them all.

Building and repairing roads on the reservation is also made more difficult by taxes and regulations imposed by the tribal government. Something seemingly as simple as opening a gravel pit on reservation land -- which would reduce the cost of road repairs -- has been nearly impossible, despite years of talks about the need for one. So contractors on some parts of the reservation haul gravel from 100 miles away to avoid the complexities of using the reservation to do business. Herman Daniels, a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council, the tribe’s legislative body, acknowledges that the Navajo laws can stymie progress. “We have a lot of laws that we have to abide by,” he says. “We have those barriers, and it’s prolonging a lot of the projects with the nation. But slowly we’re progressing.”


Navajos in Utah tend to live far apart from one another, making their experience different than that of whites in the same part of the country.

The mix of paved, gravel and dirt roads on the Utah side of the reservation is roughly the same as it is for the county as a whole, but the everyday experiences of whites and Native Americans can be very different. Whites in the county tend to live in small cities where the roads are paved. The Navajo tend to live much farther apart from one another, sometimes miles from their closest neighbors. They pay taxes that go to San Juan County, especially if they buy goods or work in parts of the county off the reservation. So the Navajo are frustrated when the county doesn’t provide services to the places where they live. On the other side of the issue, reservation land is exempt from property taxes, one of the county’s major revenue sources. So there is a near-constant tension about the balance of services San Juan County provides for white residents and Native Americans.

This tension started here a very long time ago -- before the Navajo reservation extended into what would later become Utah.  

A monument in Bluff, the first major white settlement in San Juan County, recounts the arrival of Mormon settlers to the area in 1880. To get there, the party of 250 people, 83 wagons and more than 1,000 head of livestock coming from the Salt Lake area had to navigate terrain carved with cliffs, canyons and mesas. The Mormons came hoping to find new grounds for farming and new souls for conversion among the Navajo. Instead, they found a river that was prone to floods and droughts and, as the inscription at the Bluff memorial notes, they endured 40 years of attacks from “hostile Indians.” The groups clashed repeatedly over land use, with both sides trying to maintain control of grazing lands near the San Juan River.

San Juan County and Utah have been home to racial clashes ever since. Long after the battle of Wounded Knee, San Juan was the location of the last armed conflict in 1923 between American Indians and whites, although it involved Utes and not Navajos. Utah was the last state in the country to grant Native Americans the right to vote in 1957. Despite its large Native American population, San Juan County didn’t elect a single Native American to public office until 1986, and that happened only after the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to sue the county for violating the Voting Rights Act. Tensions quickly flared when Mark Maryboy became the first Native American on the county commission, reaching a point in the 1990s when the county considered splitting into two along racial lines.

Navajo residents have sued the county numerous times, starting in 1974 and concluding 25 years later, to open public schools on reservation land and provide bilingual instruction in English and Navajo. They also sued in the 1990s to make sure Native Americans were better represented on jury rolls. 

Another flashpoint has been Utah’s management of royalties generated by oil fields on reservation land. Because of a quirk in federal law, the state managed 37.5 percent of those royalties for the benefit of the local Navajo (the other portion is managed by the Navajo Nation). In 2008, the state agreed to a $33 million settlement for mismanaging the money, and tried in vain to have Congress designate another trustee for the royalties. There were competing claims among the Navajo over who should control the distribution, leading to a standstill until the Utah Legislature assumed control again in 2015.

Today, the deepest divisions are again over land use and, in particular, the designation of 1.3 million acres in the county as the Bears Ears National Monument. The tensions in that controversy don’t fall neatly along racial lines, but much of the dispute is about how to preserve the 100,000 sites in the monument that contain Native American artifacts, and how to allow Navajo and other Native Americans to follow their traditions of gathering herbs and firewood there. President Barack Obama created the monument, which is located in the heart of San Juan County, during his final month in office. The Navajo Nation and several other tribes endorsed the move, but San Juan County commissioners and some Utah Navajos, including Rebecca Benally, objected. The Trump administration is considering whether to rescind or narrow Obama’s designation, but any effort to reverse it will likely be contested in court.

The Navajos are also in court fighting San Juan County in two cases that could altogether change the area’s political dynamics. The Navajo Human Rights Commission has sued the county for moving to a mail-in vote system for county, state and federal elections. The tribe contends that the system discriminates against Navajo voters because postal service is spotty on the reservation, the Navajo language assistance provided by the county is insufficient and even the three polling places on the reservation are hard to reach for many voters because of poor roads. The county says it has gone out of its way to accommodate Navajo voters. It has a full-time Navajo liaison who visits chapter houses, explains the vote-by-mail procedures and registers people to vote. The county provides language assistance, says Jesse Trentadue, the lawyer representing county government. It created a toll-free number for information in Navajo and advertised on Navajo-language radio stations and newspapers.


San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally has pushed to improve roads on the reservation, starting with school bus routes.

The second lawsuit aims to force the county to redraw its county commission districts, which have remained virtually untouched since the county entered a consent agreement with the U.S. Justice Department in 1984, even though virtually all U.S. governments redistrict once a decade to comply with equal population standards. By packing nearly all of the Native American voters into a single district, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission says, the county has deprived the Navajo of political power. (The Navajo commission is also contesting the county’s districts for its school boards, which have remained the same since 1992, even though a predominantly white area joined a separate school district in 2010.) Trentadue says the county commissioners didn’t want to redraw their map for all these decades because they were afraid of violating the Justice Department’s consent decree. “We were terrified to touch it,” he says. A federal judge has ordered the county commission and school board districts to be redrawn.

Leonard Gorman, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, says the political dynamics in San Juan County remind him of the resistance that two neighboring counties in Arizona went through from the 1960s through the 1980s. Eventually, though, those counties with clear Native American majorities made changes that allowed Native Americans there to assume political power. “Those dynamics continue to exist today in San Juan County, Utah,” he says.

A shift in power on the county commission could affect the condition of roads on the reservation, among many other issues. At least, that’s what Bruce Adams, the current chair of the commission, argued in his 2012 election campaign. Adams, a Republican, faced a three-way contest in the general election, and his campaign warned that votes for the third-party candidate could lead to the Democrat, a Navajo man, taking the seat and tilting the balance on the commission. One of Adams’ arguments was that the county should not be in the business of paying to maintain reservation roads. “Funding for reservation roads is the responsibility of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs,” one of his campaign ads explained. “Every year Navajo government officials and private citizens living on the reservation request that San Juan County provide funds for projects on the reservation which are definitely not the responsibility of the county.” 

Adams declared that he had been “very successful in preventing the expenditure of San Juan County tax money on reservation projects for which the county has no responsibility.”

As these battles ensue in the background, things remain very simple in the bus yard near the high school in Blanding. The focus there is on the logistics of moving children across the vast county. A mechanic inspects the undercarriage of a bus for signs of damage on a recent morning. The most common problems from the rough roads are flat tires and exhaust pipes that fall off.

Meanwhile, Kyle Hosler, the business administrator for the school district, ticks through the concerns he and his staff wrestle with every day in getting students to and from the reservation. “It’s whether your bus drivers are going to show up, who’s going to be the substitute, do they know the route, do they know where to pick the kids up? Not only that, but we have late activities. We have kids up here until 5 or 6 o’clock at night for practice, and they expect us to drop them off on the reservation,” he says. “It’s a hairy beast.”

William Mustache pulls in from his morning route and parks his No. 62 bus on the gravel lot outside. He’ll take a separate vehicle home, then come back in the afternoon for the return trip. He knows that if all goes as planned in the week ahead, he’ll be at milepost 15 on U.S. 191 -- nearly an hour into his route -- at 6:23 a.m. each morning, before he makes his final turnoff down the dirt roads of the reservation. But the roads always add uncertainty. And the forecast calls for rain. 

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
Special Projects