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Green energy may provide an economic boost to the Navajo Nation

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WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — The current thrust toward energy independence may offer the Navajo Nation an opportunity to create green jobs, initiate an economic renewal and revive traditional enterprises, according to tribal advocates.

“Indian people live off the land, so in a sense they have basically practiced green jobs,” said Joshua Lavar Butler, communications director for the Navajo Nation Council.

A new Navajo Green Economy Coalition is preparing a resolution for the council that, if approved, would allocate $6 to $10 million for a Navajo Green Energy Commission and Navajo Green Economy Fund.

“Individuals, chapters, agencies, anyone could apply for the money, with the hope that, for every $15,000 allocated, one job will be created,” said Nikke Alex, a coalition spokesperson.

The plan is to create a seven-member commission under the Navajo Nation Council similar to the Navajo Human Rights Commission to look over grant applications and to select those to be funded, she said. The plan would require council approval and buy-off by the tribal president.

The Navajo Nation is large enough that “it could be self-sustaining,” said Tony Skrelunas, Native American Program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, who said his organization is part of the coalition because “it’s very timely – green energy is a big deal.”

The renewable energy advocates were interviewed by phone before the Navajo Green Jobs Community Summit held in Window Rock Jan. 17 – 19 by the Black Mesa Water Coalition and Campus Climate Challenge.

Lawrence. T. Morgan, speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, “sees the Navajo Nation ‘going green’ to set an example and to be a template for other Native nations.”

“It was his vision to initiate green jobs on the Navajo Nation,” Butler said, noting that Morgan, who is seeking re-election, is active in the council of Large Land-Based Tribes and, with Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., is an advocate for increased funding in the north BIA region. “His hope is that we can go back to our roots.”

The summit at Window Rock included panels and workshops reflecting the views of groups that included the Black Mesa Water Coalition, the recently formed Navajo Green Economy Coalition, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, One Sky New Mexico and other individuals and environmental and grassroots nonprofit organizations.

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The Navajo Green Economy Coalition, said the group’s aim is to “create energy-efficient and low- or non-polluting jobs for the Navajo Nation,” Alex said, including small or large community renewable energy projects, textile or woolen mills, energy-efficient ventures that could involve weatherizing, weavers’ cooperatives, green construction firms and traditional agricultural renewal.

The coalition was formed to help transition and diversify the Navajo economy to one that is long-lasting, sustainable and healthy through a green jobs initiative that includes “generally, low-polluting and recycling interactions with the environment,” she said.

Grant amounts would depend on the amount of money allocated and, while the recession has affected the Nation as it has the U.S. economy as a whole, the coalition is hoping the fund will be established “as soon as possible.”

The Navajo Green Energy Coalition’s plan has the support of about one-third of the nation’s 110 chapters to date and information was distributed last fall at a number of tribal fairs, she said.

Jobs on the reservation to enable tribal members to stay or return may be a major benefit of the green jobs initiative.

“We want to encourage students to come back home and make their own jobs,” she said. “We want science and engineering students to come back, and we want to show them how the education you’re getting now is going to help this brand new economy.”

Even if the program is not funded, a channel has been established for U.S. funds to go to the nation for wind and solar energy, weatherizing homes and starting gardens, she said.

Gordon Isaac, Navajo, president of KEYA Earth Co., Shonto and Flagstaff, Ariz., said he and others are pursuing legislation through the Navajo Nation to establish the green energy fund. His company offers services that assist in planning for sustainable development.

“For a long time, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) haven’t necessarily worked well with tribal government” because they’ve been on different sides on environmental issues, but Black Mesa Water Coalition and NGOs are working with the speaker’s office and other parts of Navajo government, Skrelunas said.

He has been working with other tribal groups to increase their involvement in the U.S. administration’s renewable energy plans and said “I think there’s enough to go around” of tribal green energy plans nationwide. He is a former director of the Nation’s Economic Development Division and Government Development Office.

Projects funded from the investment commission could provide money for reinvestment in nation-building, he said. There are renewable energy projects currently under way and there is a “high probability that several projects will go all the way to development.”