Selling San Juan: Part 1

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 1: Pandora’s Box

Many of those who support the Bears Ears National Monument want to discuss the public policy implications of the designation. They ask, ‘Is this good policy?’

I am sure that there were some great arguments about the public policy implications of the Stamp Act. But for local residents, and for the Colonists in 1776, this is much more fundamental than a discussion about public policy.

— Boyle, B. Dust in the Wind. The San Juan Record.


Monument Valley, Utah

On January 28, 2016, President Barack Obama designated the Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County, Utah and unleashed a whirlwind.  Monument opponents immediately condemned the designation and promised to pursue its reversal or modification using all three branches of government.  For their part, monument proponents promised to counter such efforts at every turn, and launched a massive national media campaign intended to tilt the court of public opinion in their favor.

For those who followed the process leading up to monument designation, it was depressingly predictable that the post-proclamation debate would generate much more heat than light, especially since the designation occurred in the immediate aftermath of an exceptionally polarized national election.  For the communities of San Juan County, however, the persistent manufacture of political outrage is largely beside-the-point.  Pandora’s box was opened, the forces previously (more or less) contained therein were let loose, and closing the box now won’t change that fact.  The future of San Juan County has been irrevocably altered.

Exactly how the future was affected by monument designation is impossible to say, but it is possible to identify the forces of change and take their measure.  This is no small thing, because this kind of classification and analysis can demystify the process of change and begin to uncover opportunities for preserving a greater degree of community self-determination in its face.  The future may not be fully knowable by San Juan locals, but it need not be fully conceded.

The Transformation of Industrial America

To begin forming a more educated guess about the future of San Juan County, it pays to first back up and zoom out, to put the new pressures on the county in a broader historical context and to define several key terms.

Like other advanced economies, America is decades into a vast shift from a predominantly industrial to a post-industrial socioeconomic order.  This evolution involves both processes of production and norms of consumption, with significant impacts on employment and a broad range of social institutions.  America is still the undisputed king of consumption of agricultural and industrial products, but the processes that provide these goods have been thoroughly consolidated, automated, and/or offshored.  Oligopolistic agribusiness has largely supplanted the family farm and textile manufacturing has mostly been relocated to Asia, to give just two examples.

At the same time as the American economy has evolved away from industry, so-called post-industrial sectors of the economy — broadly knowledge- and service-based occupations — are on the rise.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1915 and 2015, ‘manufacturing’ declined as a percentage of all nonfarm employment from 32% to less than 9%, and ‘transportation and public utilities’ employment declined from 13% to 4%.  Over the same period, employment in ‘other professional services’ grew from 3% to 29% of nonfarm employment, and ‘wholesale and retail trade’ grew from 13% to 23%.

These economic trends are the subject of extensive commentary, yet the social cost of this transformation is only rarely deeply appreciated, especially as it pertains to rural America.  Certainly the numbers alone do not tell the full story, nor does the catch-all term restructuring, which is a dry, academic label for what happens when some occupations, and the people who once filled them, are unceremoniously tossed into the dustbin of history.

Postindustrialism and New West Gentrification

The trend away from an industrial socioeconomic order is certainly manifest in San Juan County.  For example, in 2016, oil extraction in the county amounted to 50% of 1986 output and natural gas about 30%.  But San Juan County is different from many places in several important respects: it is an abundantly wild and incredibly scenic place; a large amount of its archaeological record has been well-preserved in its remote and rugged backcountry; and it comprises a significant portion of the Grand Circle region popular with tourists.  These elements make San Juan susceptible to a specific type of restructuring due to amenity migration:

Rural communities throughout the postindustrial world are in the midst of a significant transition, sometimes referred to as ‘rural restructuring,’ as traditional land uses, economic activities, and social arrangements transition to those associated with ‘post-productivist’ or ‘multifunctional’ landscapes. Amenity migration, the movement of people based on the draw of natural and/or cultural amenities, can be thought of as both driver and outcome of this transition, resulting in significant changes in the ownership, use, and governance of rural lands, as well as in the composition and socioeconomic dynamics of rural communities. Amenity migration is a phenomenon of increasing interest to rural geographers and other social scientists due to the ways in which, in concert with other social, economic and political processes, it is contributing to the fundamental transformation of rural communities in more developed regions throughout the world. (Citations omitted.)

— Gosnell & Abrams. Amenity migration: diverse conceptualizations of drivers, socioeconomic dimensions, and emerging challenges. GeoJournal.

In its focus on ‘post-productivist’ values like scenic aesthetics and outdoor recreation, amenity migration refers primarily not to counterculture back-to-the-land in-migrants, but to seasonal and other part-time residents and full-time modem cowboys.

Perhaps a more useful way of understanding amenity migration is in terms of ‘what’ rather than ‘who.’  One academic has described amenity migration as permanent tourism, which is a helpful way of thinking about the phenomenon, but this term may also be somewhat incomplete, since ordinary tourism is itself really a point on the same theoretical continuum that ends in permanent or semi-permanent residency.

Ultimately, I think the best articulation of the phenomenon is more conceptual: amenity migration, either intentionally or unwittingly, imposes an exurban, distinctly post-industrial order on a rural geography previously structured around the logic and values associated with industrial-age middle-class society.  In other words, the causes and consequences of amenity migration do not begin with a pattern of migration to a particular place, but with that place’s amenitization, which is itself not a naturally occurring fact but a socially constructed process.

I will more fully unpack the characteristics and implications of these phenomena in later parts of this essay, but for now it is enough to preview the argument that amenity migration involves many of the same generic characteristics as urban gentrification and settler colonialism: it is the political domination and economic exploitation by one group of another, especially through the control of land.  This brings me to what is truly at stake for San Juan County post-Bears Ears proclamation: whether the local communities will keep a meaningful degree of self-determination or be the next place to be changed wholesale by New West gentrification.  In short, the battle over Bears Ears is not, ultimately, a land use struggle.  It is a class struggle.

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