Closing the loop

The West's fire problem helps Navajos return to their roots

  • photo

    Janise Witt

CAMERON, Ariz. - In an old shed on the Navajo Nation, 60 miles north of Flagstaff, two well-muscled Navajo men pull lanky ponderosa pine logs out of a 1954 Chevy truck and prod them onto a fast-moving conveyor belt. The conveyor takes the "yellow-bellies" into the maw of a torpedo-shaped, thumping, peeling machine, popping them out minutes later as sleek, naked logs destined for use in traditional Navajo houses, or hogans.

This prototype plant is a first step toward solving a massive problem on the nearby Coconino National Forest: fire-prone, overgrown stands of ponderosa pine. At least 250,000 of the Coconino's 1.8 million acres are in need of thinning and restoration, according to the Forest Service.

One of the biggest challenges, however, has been to create a way to turn the thinned trees into marketable wood products rather than simply cutting and burning them. "Burning the wood, rather than sending it down the road to make new products, is a type of insanity," says Coconino National Forest Superintendent Jim Golden.

In providing a market for the wood, the hogan project may also create living-wage jobs and new housing on the Navajo Nation, where unemployment rates hover between 40 percent and 50 percent and housing conditions are poor. Most hogans on the 17 million-acre reservation have been put together with whatever materials could be salvaged. The other choice has been government-built housing, much of which is falling apart and costly to heat. Tribal authorities say there is a pressing need for 30,000 new homes on the reservation.

Traditional comeback

The Cameron mill is the brainchild of a nonprofit organization called Indigenous Community Enterprises (ICE), sponsored by the Northern Arizona University School of Forestry. Funding has come from the Forest Service, regional nonprofits and a number of foundations, such as the Arizona Community Foundation.

Three years ago, Mae Franklin, the tribe's liaison to the Forest Service, the late Shawn Muldoon, a timber sales officer with the Kaibab National Forest, and the late Ella Big Horse, the coordinator of one of the Navajo chapters, came up with the idea to use small-diameter wood for a variety of projects on the reservation, including corrals, fences and ramadas.

Housing rose to the top of their list because of the tribe's need and the prospect that it could pay for itself over time. The three took their idea to the Grand Canyon Forests Foundation, created by the Grand Canyon Trust and the Coconino National Forest, which was working to reduce fire danger on the Coconino (HCN, 3/1/99:Flagstaff searches for its forests' future). There they met staff director Brett KenCairn, a bearded Princeton graduate and veteran community organizer, and together they took the idea to the Northern Arizona University School of Forestry. Indigenous Community Enterprises was born.

"Two years ago, we were just a bunch of dreamers with big ideas and a few drawings of log hogans," says KenCairn, now ICE's executive director. Now, he says, "We are on our way toward creating a synthesis that restores the land and the native community at the same time."

"This is the first big effort on the Navajo Nation's part," adds Tony Skrelunas, until recently a top official in the Navajo Tribal Government and now an ICE board member. "Until now, a variety of cultural traditions discouraged organized business efforts like this. Attitudes among the elders are changing."

So far, two prototype hogans have been built, one of which now stands outside the Navajo Community Chapter House here in Cameron and is used by Mae Franklin as an office for Forest Service activities. The other stands on the grounds of the Leupp Elementary School in the southwestern corner of the reservation. Four more prototypes have been purchased by the Navajo housing authority for elders in extreme need.

KenCairn says that Indigenous Community Enterprises now gets several inquiries a day from interested purchasers, and although final production plans are still in the works, the organization hopes to be building four to five hogan kits a month by this fall. Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begay has already invited ICE to establish another manufacturing plant in the Fort Defiance area.

Over the past 11 months, ICE has hired eleven Navajos at wages ranging from $8 to $15 an hour. In addition, four Navajo contractors employing eight workers were hired. In all, the project's payroll is $90,000.

Home economics

As the program expands, it could also help make forest restoration more economically viable. KenCairn believes that with more manufacturing plants and new, more valuable uses for wood byproducts, the current cost of forest restoration could be lowered from an average of $800 per acre to $50-$100 per acre. But will that reopen logging's Pandora's box of profit motive by tying forest restoration to selling trees?

"The key issue is scale," says KenCairn, adding that larger-scale operations like paper mills, plywood plants or wood-fired power plants - which consume hundreds of millions of board feet of thinnings - may not be sustainable over their 20- to 30-year life spans. "People who invest the kind of money these plants take - 200-500 million bucks - are going to have a strong financial interest in making sure the wood fiber keeps flowing.

"We're taking a different approach," he continues. "We think smaller scale, community-based enterprises are a more responsive and practical solution." KenCairn says that ICE's small, locally owned and controlled $1 million-$4 million plants are more flexible and adaptive to available materials, and better fit the scope of a conservative restoration program.

The next challenge will be making the hogans affordable. The cost of a hogan kit ranges between $13,000 and $25,000; add in construction costs, and the price of an 800 square-foot hogan with a septic system can run between $50,000 and $75,000. Average income per capita on the reservation is $6,400.

"Some of the elders," says Franklin, "are suffering sticker shock."

Still, the hogans cost less than Housing and Urban Development houses, which run $126,000 for a one-bedroom house and $133,000 for two bedrooms. ICE and Navajo officials are working on a number of ways for Navajos to own the new hogans. The tribe will provide economic assistance for very low-income elders, and the tribal government, which builds rental homes with HUD money, will redirect such funds to hogan plants and to ICE. In the meantime, ICE has applied for a grant directly from HUD as well. ICE and the Navajo Housing Authority are also working with banks such as Wells Fargo and Bank One to make mortgage money available.

While the economic challenges are real, Mae Franklin thinks that local support for the project is already starting to show momentum. "The chapters are coming around; reality is setting in," she says. "This is going to happen."

James Bishop Jr. is a former Newsweek Washington correspondent, now based in Sedona, Arizona.

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