NAVAJO, N.M. - On the austere, high-desert plateau of the Navajo Nation, the Chuska Mountains rise unexpectedly, an oasis of alpine forests and crystal-clear lakes. For centuries the Chuskas have been the source of building materials, game animals and grazing land, a place to gather medicinal herbs and spiritual strength.
But in the past four years, amid
allegations of overcutting and murder, the Chuskas have also become
the source of bitter hostilities between the tribe's logging
operation and traditional residents.
been difficult but it seems to be arriving. The tribal sawmill,
which is said to support 2,500 people when extended families of
loggers are considered, has been shut down temporarily and the
tribe has announced a new regime of forest management based on
concern for the ecosystem.
Standing in this
sawmill town and waving his hand toward the dark hump on the
horizon that is the Chuska range, Earl Tulley explains, "These are
sacred mountains, the male deity" in the Navajo tribal pantheon.
Tulley, an employee of the Navajo Housing
Authority, is one leader of Diné CARE, the environmental group
that has gathered support for a vision of preserving old-growth
forest and traditional values. "When unethical harvesting of trees
is infringing on the health of the land, on sacred mountains," he
says, "then we have to protect it."
others suspect conspiracy and cover-up surrounding the death last
October of Diné CARE co-founder Leroy Jackson (see
accompanying story). Jackson's death has been ruled accidental, but
many think otherwise. "A lot of people had their hands in this
particular till (the flow of money around logging)," says Tulley,
"and they didn't want to lose it."
lamenting the stridency of Navajo environmentalists - -It's "do or
die" to them' - Robert Billie, director of tribal forestry, allows
simply, "We could not continue as before. We had to pause."
An Anglo forester's
Significant cutting of old-growth
ponderosa pines in the Navajo forest during the 1980s led to the
pause. Before the 1980s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had a more
direct hand in managing the forests and cutting was fairly light,
says Dexter Gill, an Anglo who directed tribal forestry from 1982
until last year; it was his regime that got into
Over time, Navajo forests had built
up a preponderance of 200- to 400-year-old pines that were
vulnerable to insects and disease and needed to be cut and put to
use, Gill says. During the 1980s, the tribe took over management of
forests and conducted the first systematic inventory and began to
cut in earnest. One primary purpose, Gill says, was to create jobs
and a logging economy on the reservation.
the 1980s, the cut was increased to about 36 million board-feet a
year - which the forest could more than support through growth and
regeneration, Gill says. Not everyone agreed. In 1990, when a
timber sale took much of the old growth and thinned thickets of
saplings in Tsaile Canyon, several families living in the canyon
became active in Diné CARE (in Navajo, Diné means "The
People," and in English, CARE stands for Citizens Against Ruining
The logging in Tsaile Canyon
"was a traumatic change aesthetically" in the landscape, Gill says.
"But to me, as a forester, it was beautiful. To me it was a dying
forest and now (with the saplings thinned and the overstory
removed), it's a growing forest."
organized against another big timber sale, appealing it to the BIA,
which retained oversight. The appeal resulted in a 50 percent
reduction in the volume of timber to be cut in the sale.
"That was the first appeal of a timber sale the
BIA ever had filed against it, anywhere," Gill says. Continued
Diné CARE pressure led to a 66 percent reduction in the next
"Tribal politics couldn't handle the
concept of pressure groups," says Gill, who now lives in Gallup,
N.M. "The Navajo concept is that everybody should have a consensus
before going ahead. Once it became a cultural issue, that was it."
Saving a forest strangles a
Diné CARE paid for forest studies that
contradicted the studies the tribe had done; the environmentalists
said the Navajo forests could support only one-third the annual cut
of the 1980s and that during the decade, Navajo forests had been
cut more intensively than any other forests in the
Forest residents said wildlife and
plant communities were suffering. "We used to have ponds and
beavers," recalls Adella Begaye, Leroy Jackson's widow. "We no
longer hear the songbirds, and the medicine people can't even find
all the plants they used to."
As timber sales on
the reservation were scaled back, the Navajo sawmill - operating as
Navajo Forest Products Industries - was also forced to scale back.
The mill required larger infusions of funding from the tribe,
amassing a $14 million debt and triggering an audit, and there were
efforts to buy timber from off the reservation and have it trucked
to the mill for processing.
"It was ill-planning
and arrogance." says Tulley of Diné CARE. "They (mill
operators and backers, including three members of the Navajo Tribal
Council who also sat on the mill's board of directors) saw this
train wreck coming a long time."
At least 600
Navajos worked at the mill during its prime, living in company
houses in the company town of Navajo. Nearly 15 years ago, long
before there were activists or environmental regulations to blame
it on, NFPI started laying off workers. By 1991 the workforce had
dwindled to 300; about 125 people were working at the mill when it
shut down July 25.
As Diné CARE pushed for
the enforcement of federal environmental laws, the BIA refused to
approve any further timber sales until a new 10-year forest
management plan could be agreed upon, paralyzing the timber
Today, only 20 people, mostly managers,
are still at work at the mill. Once-bustling neighborhoods in
Navajo stand empty and windswept. "A boomtown gone bust," Diné
CARE described it in a letter to Navajo President Peterson Zah.
"The unfortunate thing is, this beligaana-style (Anglo) phenomena
took place on Indian lands."
chairman of NFPI's board of directors, did not return any calls for
this story. NFPI director Ed Richards accused this reporter of
being "another one of those people trying to make this into an
environmental story" and hung up.
In an interview
with the Navajo Times, Richards blamed environmentalists for the
shutdown but also conceded that the 38-year-old mill may be
obsolete. He wanted to invest more of the tribe's money in building
a smaller, modern mill.
It seems likely that the
Navajo timber program will re-emerge, but in a more modest
The first real study of
The same environmental laws that apply
to national forests also apply to forests on reservations, says
Billie, the new director of tribal forestry. "We are a sovereign
nation, but we are subject to federal law," he says. Also there are
general tribal laws about conservation of resources, Billie
But until recently, he says, timber cutting
was getting preference over other forest values, possibly in
violation of such environmental laws.
with federal environmental laws has amounted to "just more or less
going through the motions," says John Martin, a tribal member and
resource specialist for the BIA.
definitely has not been an honest attempt by the BIA to foster the
intent of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act)," Martin says.
"It wouldn't surprise me if some timber sales (before the recent
controversy) were approved in as little as 10 minutes."
Billie now talks in terms of ecosystems and says
the tribe has "embarked on a new direction of integrated forest
management - all forest resources being considered."
The change, he says, came out of "an assessment,
not only from environmentalists, but from the professionals here in
tribal forestry," with a nudge from President Zah. "Diné CARE
takes full credit but there was a general shift in environmental
awareness on the reservation."
Billie says that
modern forestry reflects traditional Navajo values. "My grandfather
was a medicine man, and taught me that you do not use anything to
excess. So when I learned about integrated resource management and
multiple use, I thought, yeah, I know this stuff."
Tribal foresters are putting together the first
environmental impact study of the timber program, as well as a new
10-year plan that will reflect the new priorities - two moves that
Diné CARE had urged. Both studies are to be completed by next
year, but Gill, the former head of tribal forestry, says he
understands that the annnual timber cut on the reservation will be
reduced by about 50 percent.
study must also take into account the threatened Mexican spotted
owl, not only as an indicator species but also because the owl is
revered as a sacred messenger that warns of danger, says Tulley of
An impact statement could open
an avenue for legal challenges to natural resource management on
Indian lands, says Martin of the BIA. On the other hand, he says,
many federal environmental regulations are probably not appropriate
The BIA increasingly promotes
Indian self-determination, says Martin, and the Navajo Nation
should develop its own culturally appropriate environmental
Tribes around the country are
seeking just such freedom, cooperating to draft a National Indian
Forest Management Act that Congress will be asked to approve,
"We have sacred laws that a lot of
us live by," says Begaye, "but the Navajo Nation has very few
written laws, so federal laws are the only handle we have."
In recent months, unemployed loggers and mill
workers fed up with NFPI management have thrown in with Diné
CARE. Fourteen community chapters around the Chuskas tired of
watching their forests topple have passed resolutions in support of
the group. Even a field technician with the tribal forestry
department was spotted in a Diné CARE
Diné CARE's grass roots are growing
stronger and seem less willing to bend.
wake of her husband's mysterious death, it will be difficult for
Adella Begaye to compromise at all. She says that any reform of the
Navajo timber industry will be too little, too late. Navajo forests
have already suffered too much abuse, she says, and Diné CARE
will oppose all future timber sales.
logging has played itself out and just doesn't belong on the
reservation, she says. "NFPI is not financially viable, it's just
an employment agency. Maybe they should turn that plant into
something else, like a recycling center."
Diné CARE can be reached at P.O. Box 121,
Tsaile, AZ 86556.
Former HCN intern
Ernie Atencio studies anthropology and writes in Flagstaff,
Arizona. Ray Ring contributed to this report.