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. 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.


Diné C.A.R.E. Mapping Project

This project involves working with the Sanostee community developing a restoration plan on a portion of the Navajo Forest heavily utilized with little environmental mitigation. This project serves as a pilot for larger projects on the 600,000 acre Navajo Forest. Since 1991, Dine' CARE has sought to defend the forests of the Chuska Mountains and Defiance Plateau, located in the heart of the Navajo Nation along the northern Arizona-New Mexico border, from the adverse effects of over 100 years of unmitigated timber cutting. The Navajo Nation's sawmill enterprise, Navajo Forest Products Industries, utilized the supply of timber from the Navajo forests from 1960 through 1993. This supply exceeded on a per-acre basis, the harvest of any other southwest forest. In 1981, a series of site reports prepared by the Navajo Nation forestry department provided evidence of the poor condition of our forests. Since then, there has little environmental mitigation. NFPI closed operations in 1995, but plans have been devised to renew operations.


The Sanostee project will help us assist other forest communities plan for their portion of the Navajo Forest and restore the health of the entire forest . Our current project is mapping the Sanostee region of the Chuska Mountain forests. To do this we are using a technology called "Geographical Information Systems" (GIS) - a tool that stores images of maps in computers, allowing us to overlay a large number of variables to explore various causes and treatments of forest damage. Although our GIS database is incomplete we have created some preliminary maps showing vegetation and hydrography of the Sanostee forest landscape. Our Sanostee data includes a 1993 Landsat satellite image, which when classified will show the most recent view of vegetation land cover. Hydrography, forest stands, roads, GAP, DEM and boundaries are also included. We are receiving a new, detailed digital soils layer from the BIA. When completed, the land cover map will be more detailed and updated then what the NN Forestry Department is currently using. This project is important to the people of Sanostee, who are challenging Navajo forestry's assessment of the forest's condition.


Our long-term goal is to complete our Sanostee Restoration Project on the Chuska Mountain forest, a region slated by the Navajo Nation's tribal forestry department for future timber cutting. The motivation for this goal is to understand the true condition of the forest and begin restoration planning before further commercial cut (which has been delayed until at least the year 2000). Local people, living close to the land, herding sheep and gathering ceremonial sacred herbs, have contended that cumulative impacts of timber cutting have already caused extensive damage. With this in mind, our goal is to document precisely the condition of the forest and to offer the community a plan for commercial logging alternatives. This includes forest and watershed restoration and regeneration, identification of roads for closure and protection areas based upon endangered species, archeology and sacred sites.


Our primary measurable objective is to have the land cover map complete and ready for use in consultation with community members. Methods will include:

  • Finish conversion of satellite image to land-cover maps (already 60% complete)

  • Acquisition of additional GIS data from Navajo Nation forestry, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, and National Forest Service.

  • In addition to GIS analysis, we will be modeling estimates of runoff and erosion control structure needs.

  • Restoration planning will involve identifying previous ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forest structure which has been replaced with predominantly aspen and oak stands.

  • Planning to be initiated in subsequent years may include cultural resource protection, wildlife habitat protection, land use planning, and recreation development.


Ultimately, we would like to be able to apply this same technological approach to other issues, as well, including mapping the health impacts of abandoned uranium mines, and other issues affecting the Diné.