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On Navajo Nation, Bad Roads Lead To Blame For Poor Upkeep

A road with worn pavement and lots of patches.
Kate Groetzinger/KUER
A road on the Navajo Nation near McCracken Mesa shows extreme wear.

SAN JUAN COUNTY -- As winter approaches, Navajo Nation residents in Utah say roads on the reservation are increasingly hazardous because of a lack of upkeep.


And they don’t know who to blame.

The quality of roads is a constant issue on the reservation, but the situation has recently deteriorated. That’s because San Juan County stopped maintaining reservation roads in August 2018. The Navajo Department of Transportation took over, and many residents say they aren’t doing a good job.

For Navajo Nation resident Susie Philemon of McCracken Mesa, the problems start with potholes — lots of potholes — and accumulate like the feet of snow that remained unplowed last winter.

“Last year, when I was going to work during the winter time, there was snow about that deep,” she said, holding her hand up to her knee. “And I had to drive my car through that in the morning and evening, and it was really unsafe.”


The topic was the central focus of a town hall meeting this week in Blanding, where residents discussed the declining condition of roads on the reservation as well as who is responsible for their maintenance. But that could soon change, according to County Manager Mack McDonald who has spoken to officials from the Navajo Nation.

A man speaks to a crowd in an auditorium.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
San Juan County Manager Mack McDonald introduces himself to residents at a town hall in Blanding, Utah.

“They’ve approached the county to say, ‘Hey, county: will you take some of the roads back?’” McDonald said. “So we’ll be meeting with the Navajo Nation and their department of roads so we can discuss our road map forward.”

San Juan County has about $18 million in an account for road maintenance, which could be used on the reservation. That funding comes primarily from a fuel tax that is levied by the state and distributed to each county based on its road inventory and population. The county also receives around $200,000 a year for road maintenance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


The county maintained roads on the reservation for decades, but never had a formal agreement with the Navajo Nation giving them the legal authority to do so. Citing federal regulations, the Navajo Department of Transportation asked San Juan County to stop maintaining the roads in April 2018, according to county records.


In August, the county sent a letter explaining the move to each Navajo Nation district, known as a chapter, in the county. But Mary Benally, who is a member of the Mexican Water Chapter, said that local officials did not do a good job relaying that information to residents.


“I wish I had this information earlier,” she said at the town hall meeting. “It’s very important that we disseminate this information, because a lot of people, they don’t know.”


Davina Smith of Monument Valley said people on the reservation are under different impressions about who is responsible for road maintenance. She works for the San Juan County Democrats, and has been traveling around the reservation in recent weeks doing voter outreach.


“Is it the county, or the Navajo Nation, or the State of Utah?” Smith said. “It’s kind of a back and forth. And it leaves residents confused about who to talk to about getting roads fixed and getting roads built.”


Navajo Nation residents have been voicing their concern at county commission meetings for months. The topic was discussed at a commission meeting in Monument Valley in July 2019.


At that meeting, Commissioners Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, who are members of the Navajo Nation, said they were trying to work with the Navajo Department of Transportation to reach an agreement on the roads issue. Commissioner Bruce Adams said he would talk to state officials about adding the roads back into the county’s inventory, so they could receive more funding from the state.


An agreement has yet to be reached. But that could change this month, McDonald, the county manager, said. At a meeting last week in Blanding, Navajo Nation President Johnathan Nez met with U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Provo, and local officials to talk about the condition of roads on the reservation, among other issues.

Nez was open to the possibility of the county resuming responsibility for some of the roads, McDonald said. He added that the Navajo Nation wants the county to submit a list of roads it plans to maintain, “so that we’re not duplicating our efforts.”

“One of the things that was discussed is that a high priority would be the school bus routes,” he added.


The county is planning to meet with the Navajo Nation to review that list and sign an agreement later this month, McDonald said, adding that San Juan County will be able to resume road maintenance as soon as an agreement is reached. 


Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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