Navajo Utah Commission discusses federal funds, water settlements, and firewood issues

An update on the Navajo Utah Water Settlement Act, discussion of more than $50 million for Utah Chapter projects, and a university study on firewood were all part of the most recent Navajo Utah Commission meeting.

The elected Chapter officials and Navajo Nation Council representatives who make up the Navajo Utah Commission (NUC) met virtually on November 9.

Members of the commission received a report on Navajo Nation plans for Federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Funds, which includes $1.8 billion for the Navajo Nation.

Pearl Yellowman, Division Director of the Navajo Division of Community Development reported that her office has received proposals from all 110 chapters in the Navajo Nation totalling $1.15 billion. Requests include nearly $57 million for 30 projects in the seven Utah chapters.

Items included in the request include nearly $13 million for improvement of County Road 415 in Mexican Water, $500,000 for a transfer station in Dennehotso, $3 million for the Oljato Chapter House building, nearly $250,000 for five homes in Aneth, and many other project requests.

The entire list of 30 projects can be found on the Navajo Nation Division of Community Development website.

In addition to receiving information about chapter proposed projects, the Navajo Utah Commission also passed a resolution submitting two additional projects for consideration of ARPA funds. 

One is the Utah Chapter Housing Project which would spend $2,583,450 over a three-year period to hire a housing specialist to manage housing construction of 16 single family housing units in Utah.

The other NUC requested project is the Utah Chapter Capital Project Management Plan, which would hire a project manager to activate delayed or stalled projects in the Utah portion of Navajo Nation.

Members of the commission also heard from Kate Magargal, of the University of Utah, who has been doing research on Navajo Nation firewood collection.

Magargal began conducting research three years ago after seeking approval from different entities including the NUC. Field work included hauling wood with Navajo people, where she would take measurements and collect data through surveys at Navajo fairs and through interviews.

The study found that most people living on the Navajo Nation spent time hauling wood in the fall months, with some hauling through the cold winter months and very few hauling in the summer.

The research also showed that those with the lowest amount of income are most reliant on firewood for energy needs, including heating, cooking, and ceremony.

“Folks in the lowest income categories are in most need of firewood, and those in the lowest socioeconomic bracket are likely to haul wood through those winter months,” said Magargal.

Magargal reported that while many Navajo wood haulers live within 20 kilometers of woodland, about 23.7 percent of people need to travel more than 60 kilometers to harvest firewood.

Although it’s hard to measure the entire cost of hauling wood, Magargal says many people pay a high cost in travel time, as well as the cost of trucks, chains, tools, and navigating bureaucratic agencies.

Additionally, the research showed that about half of the 54 residents surveyed reported having concern with gathering firewood in the future.

Concerns of firewood gatherers include the future of woodland management and ecological changes, including increased difficulty in finding firewood in accessible places.

Additional concerns exist about finding enough high-quality wood, obtaining permits, and conflicts with tourists, ranchers, or rangers also exist.

Gavin Noyes, a consultant with Utah Diné Bikeyah, said at the meeting that they hope the report can help change the relationship between Navajo wood gatherers and public land agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

“If the BLM starts viewing firewood collectors as beneficiary use of the forest, there’s ways we could explore the possibility of setting up contracts so that there’s mechanisms where we can get people collecting firewood and finding ways to get those to elders who need it,” said Noyes.

Public land management agencies already have obligations to prevent wildfires. Sometimes that means pre-emptively collecting wood and conducting controlled burns.

Commissioner Curtis Yanito asked if there was any way wood could be gathered for Native peoples to use.

Noyes says the BLM requirement to manage large areas of land is not easy. He says previous attempts to contract duties with Navajo Nation fire collectors have covered huge areas, and those attempted contract holders have realized in two to three weeks that the scale of the project is too big for them to handle on their own.

Noyes says a nonprofit, like Utah Diné Bikeyah, could possibly hold the contract and provide and apply for private donations to help get the firewood out of the region at the scale the BLM is interested in and possibly pile the collected wood for redistribution.

Noyes says the data collected is being used to come back with draft policy recommendations in the next few months.

“The goal is for firewood collectors to have additional resources, better relationships with federal agencies, and more tools to help Navajo people have access to firewood within Bears Ears and beyond,” said Noyes.

In addition to firewood discussions, members of the NUC also discussed the recently passed federal Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act which should help bring running water to the estimated 40 percent of San Juan County Navajo residents without access.

The act settles all current and future claims by the Navajo Nation for water rights within Utah and provides the right to deplete 81,500 acre-feet of water per year from the Utah Colorado River Basin apportionment, as well as $220 million in funding for water infrastructure on the Utah portion of Navajo Nation, with an additional $8 million from the state of Utah.

The bi-partisan bill was sponsored in the Senate by Utah Senator Mitt Romney. 

At their November meeting, the NUC heard from Joelynn Ashley, Chair of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission.

Planning between federal and tribal agencies is ongoing to figure out exactly how to use the funds to bring water to Navajo Utah residents.

Ashley reported that, in the meantime, the nation is hopeful to receive the $220 million as part of the $1.7 trillion Federal Build Back Better Bill and place those fundings in an account to begin to earn interest. 

At the meeting, the Navajo Utah Commission also heard from Lenoard Gorman, the Director for the office of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.

Gorman’s office is in charge of participating in all redistricting activities representing Navajo people. Gorman reported to the commission on his work and submitted plans for the San Juan County Commission and San Juan School Board Districts.

The commission also passed a resolution requesting the Navajo Nation office of the speaker to hire a lobbyist for the 45-day 2022 Utah legislative session.

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