No relief

Coconino County ranchers denied drought relief payments

By Cindy Yurth, Tséyi' Bureau, Navajo Times, MAY 1, 2008

Leupp, Ariz. - 2008 started out so well.

While the rest of us griped about the mud, ranchers here in Western Navajo kept anxious eyes on the San Francisco Peaks as the snow piled up, daring to hope for the first time in 12 years that it would be a wet spring.

Now look at Fred and Ethel Paisano's stock tank. Other than a muddy puddle of water about 10 feet in diameter, it's a jigsaw puzzle of parched clay. Three little black ducks paddle in pathetic circles but even though it's the only water for miles, there are no cattle tracks.

"They know if they come down here to drink, they'll get stuck in the mud," explains Dan Ayze, who came down from his ranch on the mesa Saturday to help the Paisanos vaccinate their cows.

"This is what it usually looks like in July," says Wyman Earl Martinez, the handsome young ranch hand who plans to marry the Paisanos' niece. His face remains impassive, but as he surveys the scene, storm clouds blow across his eyes.

"The government don't care what happens on the rez," he says bitterly.

Whether or not that's true, it's hard to say. Out here, "the government" has a dozen names and a thousand faces - the Paisanos themselves used to work for the BIA.

What is true is that neither the Paisanos nor any of the 1,200 other registered ranchers in Coconino County are going to get a drought relief payment from the Farm Service Agency for 2007.

As far as the government is concerned, the Colorado Plateau is out of the drought.

A month or so ago, that actually looked like it may be true.

Then a powerful west wind started to blow across the landscape, and hasn't stopped yet.

Up on the mesa where Ayze runs his cows, it blew the soil right out from under the sprouting grass, exposing the roots. Here on the flats, it piled little red dunes against every sagebrush, burying the grass.

"It sucked all the moisture right out of the soil," Ethel Paisano said. And it must have blown the storm clouds away, because the usual spring rains never came.

Bleak prospects

Before the ranchers knew it, 2008 was looking pretty much like every year back to 1996 - the last wet year.

But the federal agencies can't take the ranchers' word they're in a drought. They have to have data. That's where the problem lies.

You don't have to be a hydrologist to see the trouble here. You just have to look up.

Rising splendidly right behind the Paisanos' ranch is Dook'o'oosl’’d, still mantled in ermine. It's plenty wet up there.

Down here at 5,000 feet - and you'll just have to take this reporter's word for this - you can run your truck six inches off the roadbed and sink up to your axles in fine sand, dry as a bone.

It's all part of the region the government - in this case the National Resource Conservation Service, which does the data collection - defines as the Colorado Plateau.

So when the feds averaged out the vegetation loss for last year - let's say it was 10 percent in the Flagstaff area, and 60 percent in places like Leupp - it came out to 44 percent. That's 6 percent less than they need to qualify for payment under the FSA's Non-insured Crops Disaster Insurance program.

"They lump us all together," says Ethel Paisano. "It really isn't fair. Why don't they come out here and see for themselves? Look around and tell me I'm not in a drought."

Part of the problem, agrees Nathan B. Kilgore, vice president of the FSA advisory committee for Coconino County and a rancher in LeChee Chapter, is just that: The NRCS barely collects any data on the Navajo Nation.

He produces a map of the NRCS stream flow meters. Only one is on the Navajo Nation, and it's up by Navajo Mountain.

"The water flows this way," says Kilgore, drawing little arrows on the rivers on the map. "When you look at it, they're not measuring stream flow on Navajo at all."

He looks at the map again, and then around at the Paisanos' cattle camp, where the wind has kicked up again and the red dust in the air is so thick, you can hardly see Dook'o'oosl’’d any more.

"It's obvious discrimination," he says. "You can't get around that word."

Kilgore, recently elected to the committee to represent Navajo ranchers, got several of his constituents to write letters to the FSA appealing the decision and asking them to reassess the area.

No appeal

Ethel Paisano shows the letter they all got back, telling the ranchers they can't appeal the government's decision.

"It's real frustrating," she says. "It's not like we're all out here saying, 'We want money!' We'll get by, we always have. But if the money is there for times like this, and then they don't give it to us, what are they doing with it? That's what I want to know."

Kilgore agrees. "These government agencies are always saying, 'Come apply for our programs! We have free money for you!'" he says. "And then when we apply, they say, 'Whoops, sorry, you didn't jump high enough.'"

Arnie Schlittenhart, FSA executive director for Coconino, Yavapai and Mohave counties, admits the system is flawed.

"The Colorado Plateau is a huge area," he said in a phone interview from his office in Flagstaff. "You know how it is in Arizona. You can get 10 inches of rain in this square mile, and none in the next.

"There are people out in Mohave County who are sitting on some nice range right now," he said, "and people in parts of Coconino and even Yavapai who don't have anything. It's a tough, tough situation."

So what's a rancher to do? They already tried appealing.

"The range assessment is non-appealable," Schlittenhart said. "However - and this is kind of silly - the fact that it's non-appealable is appealable."

What Schlittenhart means is that there's a chance to change the way the data is collected. But as far as those 2007 payments, they're gone on that wicked west wind.

"To retroactively assess 2007 is probably not possible," he said.

He encouraged the ranchers to keep agitating, however.

"I'm writing a letter to our state executive director now, and I'm enclosing all these appeal letters," he said.

Paisano thinks tribal officials should be lobbying for the ranchers, and Schlittenhart said that wouldn't hurt.

"Sure, if we could hear from some tribal officials, that would put some weight behind it," he said. "Any input we can get on this is good input."

But Kilgore, a retired military man, thinks ranchers shouldn't wait for somebody to fight their battles for them. That strategy hasn't worked so far.

"We Navajo people need to come together and start changing legislation," he says. "We need to take control of these issues."

Weather or climate change?

But one thing no one has control over is the weather, and one thing nobody's saying is this: What if this is not a drought? What if this is our new climate?

"It's certainly possible," Schlittenhart said. "The rules say you get paid if vegetation is less than 50 percent of normal, but what is normal any more? If we're in a 20-year cycle, is 'normal' lower than what it was before?"

Among the ranchers of Leupp, nobody is talking about hanging up his saddle just yet. Certainly not Ethel Paisano.

"My father settled this land in 1951," she says, her proud brown eyes misting up just a bit. "When my brother died in 1969, I became my father's 'son.'

"People say, 'Why don't you reduce your herd? You can't feed your way out of a drought.' Well, doggone it, this is my life. To me, there's nothing more satisfying than being out here with my animals. It's not totally idyllic, but at the end of the day you can say, 'I did something.'"




Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.