Taking range reform by the horns

  Almost a year after last summer's devastating droughts parched the Southwest, Navajo ranchers are warming up to the idea of range reform.

A joint Bureau of Indian Affairs-Navajo Nation plan may revoke some 900 grazing permits on Navajo land. This step is the most recent in a long-standing effort to reduce overgrazing on much of the 5 million-acre Navajo reservation. At least a million sheep, cows and horses compete for grassless tracts, estimated to support about half that number in the 1930s. Last May, amid starving animals, barren land and an insufficient budget, the Navajo Nation's Council solicited the BIA's help in controlling the livestock problem.

"We're just trying to preserve the natural resources," says Casey Begay, director of the Navajo Nation's department of agriculture. He explains that his agency has been out on the reservation for the past two years, educating the public about overgrazing. If people don't cooperate, he issues citations, then fines. He cancels permits only when the initial tactics fail.

"Lots of people have been very cooperative," Begay says. The permit-cancellation plan aims to punish those who abuse the land, he points out, and so far it has the public's support. "People are beginning to understand the livestock vs. land phenomenon," he says. "There needs to be an equilibrium, a balance."

* Emily Miller

High Country News Classifieds