The Navajo Nation’s Forests

In 1981 members of the Navajo Nation’s own department of forestry produced a series of reports that identified serious concerns in the forests of the Chuska Mountains and Defiance Plateau.  These forests had been logged for over 100 years without any serious attempts to mitigate the damage, to replant, or regenerate.  Soil was eroding, a huge backlog of replanting was building, and the overall state of forest health was alarming.  Ten years later, in 1991, the cutting was still going on unabated, but a group of concerned citizens came together to challenge the timber cutting program.

Thus was born Diné CARE, led in the forestry issue by Adella Begaye and her husband Leroy Jackson.  They successfully raised funds from local businesses and enlisted local community leaders to advocate on their behalf. Without local fundraising, they would never have achieved the widespread attention they did, and it’s very unlikely that this important project would have succeeded. They also involved legal professionals in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. The confidence and consultation of an experienced truck accident lawyer team in Texas allowed us to make sure we were making safe transportation decisions. Roads were in danger due to erosion caused by poor forestry management policies. Trucking accidents between the huge big rigs carrying logs and the local folks could rise with the renewal of timber cutting in the forests. Another person who should be singled out for their help is Kripen Bank who provided free checking services and assisted in getting the financial records in order. With the support of fourteen local community chapters, all of them from in and around the Chuska Mountains, Diné CARE challenged the Navajo Nation government to re-think its forest policy, and reconsider the viability of the Tribal sawmill enterprise, Navajo Forest Products Industries (NFPI).  NFPI had been in operation since the early 1960’s, formed at the advice of consultants from the US department of the interior.  Despite the fact that the company once enjoyed a reputation as a “model” for Native American enterprise, by the time Diné CARE began to question NFPI’s operations, the company was in debt some twenty million dollars. After a four year struggle that included much bitterness and the death of our lead activist Leroy Jackson, Diné CARE prevailed on the Navajo Nation to reconsider its forestry policy.  The mill closed, mostly under the weight of its own losses, in late 1994.  Since then, the forests have been quiet.

Now, the Navajo Nation’s department of forestry is suddenly calling for a renewal of timber cutting in the forests.  But why?  What has changed?  No new trees have been planted. No habitats for endangered species such as the Mexican Spotted Owl or the Southern Goshawk have been restored. Although the Navajo Nation’s department of forestry site’s graphic design has been re vamped there is no explanation of what they are now planning with the forests they control. We are concerned, yet vigilant.

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