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Bennett Freeze Thaw Finally Underway; Flurry of Activity To Improve Living Conditions

It’s nearly seven years since a law repealing the Bennett Freeze on the Navajo Nation, and still, residents are waiting to see the thaw.

It’s nearly seven years to the day since President Barack Obama signed a law repealing the Bennett Freeze on the Navajo Nation, and still, residents of the area are waiting to see the thaw.

But what’s not obvious on the ground is that Navajo Nation officials are pushing on multiple fronts – in U.S. Congress, through partnerships with federal agencies, and in their local communities. And any day, these efforts could bear fruit.

“We’ve done extensive work,” said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Walter Phelps, who chairs the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission and represents four chapters within the Bennett Freeze area.

The Bennett Freeze describes a 1966 move by then-Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner Robert L. Bennett, who prohibited development in an area encompassing all or parts of nine Western Navajo chapters: Tuba City, Coalmine, Tonolea, Kaibito, Bodaway-Gap Cameron, Tolani Lake, Leupp, and Coppermine. The freeze effectively stalled all development; with few exceptions, residents couldn’t so much as repair a roof or maintain a horse corral. Restrictions began to ease in the 1990s and were officially ended by President Obama on May 8, 2009. But poverty was so deep – and the needs so great for housing, infrastructure, and other essentials – that even now, there has been little improvement.

Homes like this one, in advanced stages of disrepair, are not uncommon on the former Bennett Freeze area, Oct 1 2015. Navajo Times/Krista Allen

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But Phelps pointed to House Resolution 3911, introduced by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and pending in the U.S. Congress, which would, in part, create a “sovereignty empowerment zone” to allow the Navajo Nation’s environmental review process to replace federal environmental review for basic community development projects like water and power lines and housing infrastructure.

“In the meantime, we pushed really hard for the Navajo Nation to apply for the Promise Zone designation,” he said. “We were not selected last year, and applied again this year.” That program, through the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, selects 20 impoverished communities each year where federal agencies will provide development incentives and direct resources.

Phelps has also been working with fellow Bennett Freeze representatives Otto Tso and Tuchoney Slim Jr. to work directly with chapters on development plans, and has asked the Army Corps of Engineers to contribute expertise on floodplain management.

And the delegates are involved in a new, big-picture planning effort out of the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President, called the Integrated Resource Management Plan (IRMP). Multiple Navajo Nation departments – including the Navajo Housing Authority, Division of Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation, Fish and Wildlife and Historic Preservation – have signed onto the IRMP with the BIA to assess development potential across the 1.6 million-acre former Bennett Freeze.

The IRMP will focus on both natural resource management and socio-economic elements, said Bidtah Backer, director of the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources.

“The idea is to be holistic,” she said. The partners will develop an Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate development alternatives for the entire region, including the best places to site infrastructure like water lines. In addition to fish and wildlife issues, any development plans must recognize cultural resources, including Traditional Cultural Properties, she said.

The Navajo Housing Authority awards annual development grants out of $85 million the Nation receives through the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996, and although little of that money is making it to the Bennett Freeze now, it’s coming, said CFO Marlene Lynch.

“We awarded $2 million for an assessment to determine how many housing units are needed,” she said, adding that the assessment is part of the IRMP. “That assessment is going on now. We have to do environmental clearance, make sure there are no protected sites, conduct a feasibility study, and determine floodplain areas. We have staff on the ground, working now. There is a lot of activity going on, behind the scenes. This project is moving but it requires a lot of data and due diligence.”

The IRMP has its critics. Don Yellowman, a lifelong resident of the Bennett Freeze and a long-time advocate for its rehabilitation, has recently been elected to lead a community-based land use planning club out of the Bodaway-Gap Chapter. He notes that the Navajo Nation Local Governance Act grants local people authority over land use.

Peeling stucco and rotting wood characterize this home on the former Bennett Freeze, where residents were not allowed to improve their homes for 40 years, Oct 1 2015. Navajo Times/Krista Allen

Yellowman says the community-based approach is gaining momentum alongside the “top-down” BIA-Navajo Nation approach, which he says is proceeding without input from the local people – and with disconcerting input, instead, from outside groups.

“Specifically concerning to me are the proposed tourist projects bordering the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River that will ultimately have a negative impact on our elders who are dependent on the land that supports their traditional and cultural life-ways,” he said. He pointed to the Escalade, a tourist destination on the Navajo Grand Canyon that was shot down several years ago.

RELATED: Controversial Grand Canyon Gondola Grounded for a Year

He said he also worries about developers that are already positioning themselves within chapters to receive money when it eventually flows in.

“They’ve been working to position themselves to be identified when the time comes to disseminate funds to these communities,” he said. “You start to see these interests evolving here, and greed seems to be the stem. But people have been exploited enough, and have suffered enough.”

But Becker said she’s proud of what the Nation has accomplished on the MOU, especially in recent months.

“It was proposed in the prior administration. Under this administration, we were able to get the MOU signed very quickly, and we’re moving through the IRMP process very quickly,” she said.

RELATED: ‘Mind-Boggling That Nothing Has Happened’: Begaye Calls for Action on Bennett Freeze

Becker said the holistic approach embodied in the current planning efforts is critical for the Navajo Nation: “Part of our traditional lifestyle involves being good stewards of the land,” she said. “This will also help move development projects forward more quickly.”

Related, From The Navajo Times: Bennett Freeze Should be priority