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Know the West

Corruption and tragic history paralyze range reform on the Navajo reservation


This year, conditions on the 17 million-acre Navajo reservation in the Four Corners have followed a bleak timeline.

A winter with lower than average snowfall was trailed by a dry, windy spring. In March, Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye declared a "drought emergency" and cattle owners - most of whom run 20 head, each of which requires 12 gallons of water a day - were asked to voluntarily cull their herds. By May, tribal rangers were shooting stray cattle that stumbled along roadsides in search of water. And in June and July, people started driving from remote areas of the reservation into border towns like Gallup, N.M., to buy potable water for themselves * never mind their animals.

Now, in August, an estimated 10,000 animals are dead, surface waters have evaporated, and few Navajo can afford drilling wells to the 1,300-foot depth required to find water.

The Navajo, of course, aren't alone. Ranchers across the Southwest are struggling. But the Navajo aren't eligible for most of the emergency funds or loans the U.S. government funnels to non-Indian farmers and ranchers. Some aid has come from within the Indian community: The Colorado River Indian Tribe has donated 2,100 bales of alfalfa hay and the Navajo Tribal Council has set aside $2.9 million for drought relief on the reservation. But even $2.9 million is too little, too late.

"We should have dealt with the management of resources, so that when the drought did come, we would have dealt with it with the least amount of stress," says John Blueyes, director of the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture. "But we didn't."

A burden of history

The situation, dire as it is, is not unfamiliar to Blueyes or the Navajo.

Overgrazing and soil erosion have plagued the Navajo Reservation since the 1890s. In an effort to solve the problem, almost 70 years ago the U.S. government imposed "reduction" strategies on Navajo sheep herds, slaughtering more than a quarter of a million animals. The slaughter burned deep into the Navajo psyche, spurring most Navajo to dig in their heels against livestock reform. In 1937, the Bureau of Indian Affairs enacted a permit system that, like other permit systems that followed, was widely ignored.

In 1996, when a severe drought decimated cattle herds and forced ranchers to sell scrawny survivors far below cost, tribal officials touted range reform (HCN, 8/5/96). But six years later, there's little evidence of that reform on the ground. This past spring, 12,000 permittees legally held 125,000 animal units. But before livestock deaths and sales took their toll on herds this summer, tribal employees estimate animal numbers exceeded 200,000.

"History, customs, old laws, past policies all have to be considered," says Gerald Chacon, supervisor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Project. "It took a long time for the Navajo to evolve into the system they have now. It will take a long time for them to make a new system."

Corruption stymies progress

Perhaps the biggest barrier to range reform is political corruption.

Ranchers on the reservation are governed by the 78-member tribal grazing committee. Grazing committee members, elected every four years, are responsible for administering and enforcing grazing regulations. Their positions, which pay $1,000 a month, are tied up not only in politics, but also in family. As times get tough, pressure for the grazing committee members to ignore offenders intensifies.

"If they try to do anything negative, their relatives, extended family, the community, can band together and vote against them in the next election," says Judy Willeto of the agriculture department. "And they want to keep their jobs because there aren't very many jobs on the reservation."

These elected officials are, according to Blueyes, "some of the biggest violators of the law. My problem is, I'm the director. All the lands are under my responsibility. But I have no control over the grazing committee."

After the 1996 drought, the tribe's department of agriculture, with help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, drafted the Navajo Grazing Act. The act would establish reservation-wide grazing regulations including a $1.50 per animal unit grazing fee. It also would require fences and enforce reduced grazing areas and decreased herds. Tribal employees, rather than elected officials, would enforce the new regulations.

But the act stalled before the tribal council for almost a year. Then, in July, the council tabled the act and decided to leave it to the tribe's 90,000 registered voters. According to tribal election rules, the act must receive 45,001 votes to become law. But only one other referendum has ever passed on the Navajo Reservation, and the chances of 45,001 people even showing up at the polls - regardless of how they vote - are slim. Even the date of the vote is uncertain; the tribal council won't decide when to hold the referendum until October.

In the meantime, Navajo Department of Agriculture officials are encouraging people to sell their livestock. Throughout the summer, they've been offering an additional 10 cents per pound for cattle sold at auction, and three bales of hay for every head sold. Employees are also rounding up wild horses in the hopes of salvaging what rangeland is left for livestock.

"There's some kind of mystique with the Navajo and their horses," says Blueyes, adding that people are reluctant to sell horses they don't even ride. "It's like the biker: He's got his old cheater bars on his Harley, it drips oil, it's rough on the road, but he hangs onto it anyway."

Laura Paskus is an intern at High Country News.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "New Mexico ranchers push to graze preserve."