Wildfire disaster shakes Apache's economy

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WHITERIVER, Ariz. - As the Rodeo-Chediski wildfire devastated the homeland of the White Mountain Apache Tribe last summer, President Bush toured nearby and promised emergency federal aid for the tribe.

The tribe's Fort Apache Reservation remains in dire economic shape, and the federal aid has still not arrived, bogged down in paperwork and a dispute over tribal sovereignty.

Fire fighters struggled for two weeks to control the Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, the largest wildfire in state history, that devastated hundreds of thousands of acres in northeast Arizona last summer. Over 60 percent of the fire burned through the Fort Apache Indian Reservation's northern border of virgin forest lands. The fire choked a source of the tribe's economic health, high-grade timber - ponderosa pine, mixed conifer and chaparral. The wildfire's intense heat and erratic fire patterns crippled the virgin forest. At some areas, entire landscapes have been annihilated.

Immediately, the White Mountain Apache Tribe wanted to begin therapeutic rehabilitation and land restoration.

"It's time for the healing to take place, and start the recovery for those damaged areas of land, where beauty will be gone for a very long time," said White Mountain Tribal Chairman Dallas Massey of the work ahead. "We have lost so much ? the trees, places of serenity and holy sites of the Apache People."

"In the long term, all of this destruction will hurt us, as a people," Massey said. "That is why the (tribal) council and I are basing our decisions on facts, not on opinion or theories. We hold our people's future in our hands."

Although the recovery efforts are pushing forward by following the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) plan created by an interagency national team of forest specialists in July, the tribe is seeking other fresh solutions to counter this wildfire disaster. The tribe is aggressively pushing salvage operations for the fallen timber, contracting with private loggers. Non-Indian logging companies were high bidders when the White Mountain Tribe opened the charred forest to salvage operations.

But work through its own logging industry, Fort Apache Timber Company (FATCO), with two sawmills on the reservation, is slow to begin because of undistributed federal disaster funding.

Tribal officials recount unresolved issues with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in obtaining the national disaster funding promised by President George W. Bush. President Bush visited the wildfire disaster in July and immediately signed a presidential proclamation that included federal financial assistance to the White Mountain Tribe. But the tribe has not received it.

"In dealing with FEMA, it has been an absolute headache," said Colette Altaha, delegated tribal representative to FEMA. "The bottom line is that they (FEMA) don't know how to deal with sovereign Indian tribes. They (FEMA) have constantly changed policies and are not consistent with their own rules and regulations pertaining to tribes."

FEMA has proposed $19 million in funding. According to Altaha, the money would be used toward the tribe's timber salvage of eight logging sites and would bring steady employment to tribal members.

But the tribe must move quickly to salvage the timber ruined by wildfire. In the aftermath of such destruction, quick action to log these sites is critical. The tribe must begin harvesting and salvaging these charred trees before they begin turning blue, a sign of deterioration. Then insects like the treacherous bark beetle invade, silently killing the tree and rendering it useless.

Nature doesn't wait for human issues to be ironed out, and the tribe will not forfeit its sovereignty.

"FEMA continues to request documents containing sensitive information and they don't realize that the tribe doesn't have to submit them," Altaha said. "We, as a tribe, are being very careful of the reports and data we release to federal agencies. We have been careful in the past; why would we forget about it now?"

Indian Country Today attempted several times to contact the FEMA regional headquarters office in California that is working with the White Mountain Apache Tribe. FEMA did not return the phone calls.

Altaha explained that the FEMA funding setback is tough to report to the tribal chairman and tribal council members, but she has utmost confidence that decisions made at the tribal executive level will be prudent and challenging. "This is a monumental effort being spearheaded by the tribal chairman and tribal council because the tribe has never experienced a devastating disaster at this level, and they have taken aggressive steps to get back to the road of recovery. I commend their efforts."

With a high unemployment rate, logging remains a main source of economic security for the tribe. FATCO is processing charred logs and will be fully operational for the two-year salvage logging, if and when FEMA funding trickles down to the tribe.

But after the salvage is harvested, the future for employment is misty. "They (FATCO employees) are going to feel the impact. People are going to get laid-off and they will not be able to pay their bills," said Hugh Lee Sr., business manager for the tribe, who is planning for the tribe's economic stability after the Rodeo-Chediski salvage is complete. "We relied on timber operations for a long time, but now it won't be in our future. We need to find new industries."

Lee, employed at FATCO for eight years, knows what hard numbers are needed for the tribe to get back on its feet, but he also recognizes the uncertainty that lies ahead. "The one thought on everyone's mind is the soil damage. Soil is hard to replace," sighs Lee who was raised in Carrizo, an area affected by the wildfire. "I use to hunt in that area, but not anymore. I will never see it the way it was before the fire."

Although logging will make up some of the monetary loss, the forest will take generations to grow and regain strength in its soils.

Time and nature are proving to be an enemy of the White Mountain Apache, but the tribe is struggling ahead.

"We cannot undo what has happened," said Massey, realizing that he and tribal council members are making historic decisions for the survival of their Apache Tribe. "We can live with this fire and make something positive out of it. Our Tribe's economy depends on it." The tribe continues to operate the Sunrise ski resort and Hon-Dah Resort Casino, but the absence of the logging industry will bring into question the economic security of generations to come.

Upcoming: The BAER plan and salvage operations.