After a heavy harvest and a death, Navajo forestry realigns with culture

  • The Navajo Forest Products Industries sawmill stands idle

    Paul Natonabah
  • Logging in the Chuska Mountains

    Ernie Atencio

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.

Change has 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."

Tulley and 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."

While 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 perspective

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 controversy.

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.

During 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 our Environment).

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."

Diné CARE 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 timber cut.

"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 mill

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 Southwest.

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 program.

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."

Thomas Boyd, 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 form.

The first real study of impacts

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 says.

But until recently, he says, timber cutting was getting preference over other forest values, possibly in violation of such environmental laws.

Compliance 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.

"There 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 annual timber cut on the reservation will be reduced by about 50 percent.

An environmental 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 Diné CARE.

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 for reservations.

The BIA increasingly promotes Indian self-determination, says Martin, and the Navajo Nation should develop its own culturally appropriate environmental regulations.

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, Billie says.

"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 T-shirt.

Diné CARE's grass roots are growing stronger and seem less willing to bend.

In the 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.

Commercial 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.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- 'People of the Earth' stress "natural laws'

- Faith in a martyr helps the cause

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