Drought has Navajos discussing a taboo subject - range reform

  • Four Sacred Mountains

    Diane Sylvain
  • Livestock in danger as watering holes in New Mexico are drying up

    Chris LaMaster

DILKON, Ariz. - "Do you know anywhere where livestock sells for more?" asks Navajo rancher Jane Yazzie. As her friend translates my negative response, Yazzie fidgets with a check on the table. It's clear the amount pains her. For one 450-pound heifer, an Arizona auction house paid $186.10. Two years ago, she probably would have gotten twice that.

Still, Yazzie and her husband, Arthur, have decided to sell about 50 head of cattle - almost their entire herd. There is no grass left and hay is too expensive. They will try to live on savings and social security until the rains return. "There's really nothing we can do," says Arthur Yazzie.

Ranchers all across the Southwest have been faced with similar decisions and talk of range reform (HCN, 7/22/96). But here, where range management is complicated by traditional beliefs and dueling federal and tribal agencies, many officials see this drought as an opportunity to bring about permanent change. "A lot of people know the value of grass now," says Judy Willeto, a range conservationist with the Navajo Nation's Department of Agriculture.

But modern range science is still a foreign concept on many parts of this 27,000-square-mile reservation. Before whites came here in the mid-1800s, Navajos kept large herds of livestock which they moved seasonally from summer camps in the mountains to bottomlands in the winter. The land sustained large herds, but as population grew and families quit rotating their livestock, overgrazing became a growing problem.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs noted poor range conditions as early as 1880. Studies it conducted in the 1930s determined that the Navajo reservation could not support more than 500,000 "sheep units' - with sheep or goats worth one unit; horses, 1.5; and cattle, four. The range was more than 100 percent overstocked, concluded BIA range experts.

As a result of those studies, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier initiated a livestock reduction program some sixty years ago, putting Indians to work on conservation projects to compensate them for livestock culled by the agency. While the bureau did succeed in reducing the number of sheep and goats by half between 1934 and 1944, the program earned Collier, known earlier as a friend to the Indians, the lasting reputation of "Hitler" or "devil," according to writer Gary Paul Nabhan.

To this day, older Navajos tell stories of being hounded and even jailed by grazing officials for not cooperating with the reduction. Some remember thousands of goats or sheep being shot and thrown in ditches to rot because prices were too low to warrant shipping the animals to market. A few say it caused so much distress that their husbands or wives died along with their sheep. Jane Yazzie, 66, remembers those days and says her grandmother was never paid for her sheep. "We're going to tell them now we want our money back," she says. "Make sure you write that."

The more things change ...

Despite that wrenching time and the federal and tribal grazing regulations that followed, some experts say the land may be in worse shape now than in the 1930s. Today, 10,000 permits exist for roughly 170,000 Navajos and the range is 400 percent overstocked, says Casey Begay, director of the grazing management office of the Navajo Nation's Department of Agriculture. With few range fences on the reservation, cattle wander to neighboring permit areas to find grass; enforcement is left to elected chapter officials who have little incentive to be tough with transgressors.

Fewer people rotate livestock now, adds Begay, and nearly 80 percent of Navajo ranchers exceed the limit of their permits, which were issued back in the 1930s. Because sheep and goats require constant herding and cattle prices skyrocketed a few years ago, many younger Navajos have replaced those animals with cattle. Cows need less attention but more land, and one result is a worn-out range: On the reservation, it takes an average of 405 acres to feed one cow and calf weighing 1,000 pounds, says Willeto. Nearby in New Mexico, the average is 108 acres.

"The problem has been accruing like some negative interest," says Ivan Joe, an environmental consultant for the Navajo grassroots group, Diné CARE. Over the past five years, Joe has seen snakeweed and rabbitbrush invade areas where grasses used to dominate. In some places, grass has disappeared and sand dunes have formed; in others, the grass has been chewed to the roots and has spread out like moss to survive. Without vegetation, dust storms and rain erode the topsoil. In some places, says Joe, there is no more cactus and no more cows. All that's left are cow turds.

"It's a time right now when somebody needs to make changes," he adds. "Regardless of whether it's right or wrong politically, it's the right thing environmentally. Someone has to make a stand."

Although most Navajo officials still view range reform as political suicide, nine months of virtually no rain has brought some tough talk. The term "reduction" is still taboo, but officials now speak of "livestock adjustment," then quickly add the word "voluntary."

In late May, a posse that included Navajo President Albert Hale, council delegates and tribal and federal officials rode by horseback and car to six reservation chapters (communities), urging the people to voluntarily reduce their livestock for the sake of the land. "If we do not address overgrazing, we'll leave nothing for our children," says President Hale. "It may be political suicide, but if we don't act, then I would seriously question why we run for leadership."

Following the range tour, the Navajo Nation sponsored five livestock sales in the harder-hit communities. At a June 12 auction held in Naschitti, Ariz., trailers unloading livestock were backed up for more than a mile, says local official Leo Largie. Officials expected to move 500 head of livestock; instead the number topped 2,000 animals and the sale lasted 24 hours straight. Navajos have sold 6,400 head of cattle, 510 sheep and goats and 14 horses at reservation auctions since June 10, says Willeto, but no one knows the number of animals sold off-reservation.

What if it rains?

Many question, however, whether the impetus for reform will last once the rains return and people start rebuilding their herds. Others say it's not worth the effort because younger Navajos have lost interest in the old ways and won't want to keep livestock anyway. For now, the issue remains a political football.

That was evident when the Navajo Nation Council proclaimed a state of emergency June 6 and directed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to "conduct livestock adjustments." For four hours, the council debated: What is the BIA responsible for and how much should the Navajo Nation do for itself?

Begay of the Department of Agriculture says the clause in the resolution was simply a directive for the agency to provide technical help to determine the range's carrying capacity. But many viewed the clause as an effort by the Navajo Nation to pawn off the political time bomb of enforcement onto the BIA. The agency's area director fired back a memo saying the agency would help wherever possible, but that "without the proper authority for enforcing existing grazing regulations, the BIA has no intentions of initiating this effort without the support and commitment of the Navajo Nation." The only action so far has been the voluntary sales.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture is working on drafting new grazing regulations in consultation with the BIA and other Navajo Nation resource agencies. The plan is to create one set of rules for the whole reservation by next August to replace piecemeal regulations decades old. Many range professionals are calling for substantive reform.

Specifically, Begay of the Department of Agriculture wants locally elected grazing officials to become tribal employees so they will be better able to enforce the law. He is also looking at the possibility of charging minimal grazing fees and creating a special adjudication board so that his office will spend less time on grazing disputes between neighbors and more time on enforcement.

Willeto insists that the Navajo Nation needs to move more quickly toward establishing range management units like those that exist on the eastern part of the reservation. Right now, ranchers must seek the approval of the BIA and the tribal resources committee before they can build a fence and declare a range management unit. That can take from six months to 10 years, she says, and even then hostile neighbors sometimes cut holes in the new fence. But she sees the change as necessary: "I think fences make really good neighbors."

John Martin, resource manager for the BIA, wants the tribe to complete a land-use plan for the entire reservation - an idea that hasn't had much political support since former Navajo President Peterson Zah left office in 1994. He would also like to see the tribe work together to move pooled herds over more ground.

No matter what happens in Washington, D.C., or in Window Rock, Ariz. - the Navajo capital - Begay realizes that drought can be the goad for change, but it's the people who must do the changing. Although the money that his department had requested for education was recently reallocated to local governments for emergency drought assistance, Begay did manage to produce a video on range management that he's distributing across the reservation.

"I'm spending a lot of time at chapter and council meetings, trying to build support," he says. "Some people accuse me of being pro-Western civilization. They say, "You went to school, you never really walked in the moccasins of someone who has tended sheep." But if things don't change, then there's no consideration for the land."

That approach is also more in tune with Navajo culture, explains Anna Frazier of Diné CARE. People like her friend Jane Yazzie have a close connection to the land, she says. They just need to learn how to manage their herds now that there are more Navajos, more cattle, and, for now, less rain.

Elizabeth Manning is HCN assistant editor

Note: in the print edition of this issue, another news article, "Prayers generate hope and bring showers," appears as a sidebar to this article.

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