Coconino County ranchers denied drought relief payments
By Cindy Yurth, Tséyi' Bureau,
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
"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.
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
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
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.
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
So what's a rancher to do? They already
"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,
"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
"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
"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.'"