Navajo tribe embarks on a long-term cleanup

  • Navajo workers clean up illegal dump near Window Rock, Ariz.

    Paul Natonobah
 

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Since taking office in 1995, Navajo Nation President Albert Hale says, he got upset every time he flew in or out of the airport here. Beside the airstrip was an illegal trash dump that has been growing for at least 50 years.

Hale vowed to clean up the dump, and did. Last May, he contacted tribal and federal agencies, including the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and collected $60,000 to get rid of the garbage.

For a month, tribal crews in protective clothing removed 400 cubic yards of trash, including thousands of disposable diapers, broken televisions, refrigerators and two cars from the 1930s. The dump contained layers of garbage in a ravine 40 feet deep and 100 feet long, about 50 yards from the airstrip.

Workers packed the debris into trucks and transported it to regional Arizona landfills. When it was over, tribal officials took photos of tribal lands that may not have been visible to the naked eye since World War II.

But cleaning up one highly visible dump hasn't made a dent in the trash problem on the nation's largest Indian reservation, where the federal Indian Health Service has identified 450 illegal dumps. Tribal officials say the war on reservation trash has just begun and that it will take a major effort over decades to clear the dumps and educate residents about trash disposal, so Navajos can really "walk in beauty."

The Navajo Environmental Protection Agency estimates it will cost $22 million to clear these dumps, a crippling sum considering the tribe had to scrape for funds to eliminate the airstrip dump. And the federal government isn't offering financial help.

"The cost is the part no one wants to participate in," says agency director Bennie Cohoe. "In some areas of the (Navajo) Nation, communities have no access to (legal) dumps, and someone has to provide an alternative."

Some tribes, including the Navajo, are setting up trash transfer stations. For a fee of up to $6, families will have a place to leave trash that will then be taken to a legal landfill. But the fee, Cohoe says, is drawing complaints on a reservation where the average family income is a few thousand dollars a year.

The Navajos aren't alone

In a 1995 survey, the Indian Health Service identified more than 650 additional dump sites on Indian reservations around the country. The study, required under the 1993 federal Indian Lands Open Dump Cleanup Act, classified 97 sites as a "high threat" to the environment. The study also revealed that the vast majority of dumpsites are unattended because there are no funds or personnel to manage them.

For generations, tribes have dumped trash - mostly organic waste like bones and food scraps - on the open land. The practice posed little environmental hazard until the early part of the 20th century, when consumption habits among Native Americans began to mirror European culture. By the 1960s, Indians were buying disposable diapers, as well as food and other products packaged in metal, glass and plastic.

These days, some reservations are finding that tourists create trash problems, as well. Last April, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community closed its side of the Verde River near Phoenix to tourists because of the tons of trash weekend visitors had been leaving.

On the other side of the river, officials for the Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache Indian Community did the same July 1, but with a twist. Fort McDowell officials say that by next summer they hope to have new recreational areas with better garbage disposal facilities. During the summer, the reservation receives an average of 1,500 visitors per weekend.

Yet tribal officials agree that the dumping problem comes down to educating residents. Says Navajo leader Albert Hale, "We're going to have to get our people to respect the land as our elders have been telling us."

The writer is a correspondent for the Navajo Times.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -