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Know the West

Navajo tribe embarks on a long-term cleanup


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.