Freeze residents impatient with planning process

By Cindy Yurth, Tséyi' Bureau, Navajo Times, AUGUST 14, 2008

TUBA CITY - The residents of the former Bennett Freeze do not understand why it is taking tribal planners so long to figure out what they need.

In the words of Coconino County supervisor and Tuba City resident Louise Yellowman, "We need everything."

"The government keeps asking us, 'What do you need?'" said Yellowman at a final input meeting held Aug. 6 for residents of the former Bennett Freeze.

"They know very well what we need," she said. "We need homes, we need roads, we need water No. 1. We need businesses, we need clinics . . . 50 years with no development. What do they think?"

In 1966 a freeze on development was imposed by the then-Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett while the government decided how to settle a decades-old dispute over 1.5 million acres claimed by both the Navajos and the Hopis.

In October 2006, after waiting for Uncle Sam to step in for 40 years, the Navajo and Hopi tribal leadership got together and signed a compact to end the freeze, which was accepted by federal court.

President Joe Shirley Jr. appointed a task force to oversee the daunting task of bringing development to an area that has pretty much stood still for 40 years.

Over the past few months, the task force, the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission and WHPacific, a Native-owned planning and consulting firm, have held public meetings in each of the nine chapters affected by the Freeze.

With input from these meetings and chapter officials, WHPacific developed preliminary master plans for each of the nine chapters: Bodaway/Gap, Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Coppermine, Kaibeto, Leupp, Tolani Lake, Tonalea and Tó Nanees Dizí (Tuba City).

The plans were unveiled at last week's meeting.

The organizers hoped that the residents, about 260 of whom packed the Tuba City Boys & Girls Club, would carefully review the master plans and give some feedback.

"What we were looking for was, 'This is OK, I don't like this, and you left this out,'" explained Scott House, project manager for the tribe's Design & Engineering Services office, which contracted with WHPacific for the plans.

What they found instead was that the thaw unleashed a flood of anger and frustration that is still coming.

"I didn't need to hear that," House said in a telephone interview after the meeting. "I've heard enough anger."

Unveiling an estimate of $730 million for capital improvement projects the nine chapters had requested - schools, clinics, police stations, senior citizen centers, etc. - seemed to set people off, even though the planners repeatedly explained that the figure did not include housing or infrastructure.

"Seven hundred thirty million?" scoffed one woman. "It's going to take trillions."

"I have 214 permittees, and I want 214 homes for those permittees, plus their children and grandchildren," said Lucille Saganitso-Krause, a Tó Nanees Dizí grazing official.

Indeed, in all but the Coalmine Canyon Chapter, residents who attended the previous meetings identified housing as either the first or second priority.

A housing study commissioned by the task force found that, of the 1,350 homes in the former Bennett Freeze, 87 percent ranged from "fair" to "very poor" condition.

Other priorities identified by the chapters include electricity, running water (only 39 percent of Bennett Freeze homes are connected to a public water source), roads, economic development, schools, health, recreation and safety facilities.

In other words, said House, "pretty much the same things the rest of the Navajo Nation needs."

While there's no doubt the former Bennett Freeze is worse off than most of the Navajo Nation, House said he could show folks areas in the Eastern Agency that are comparable.

"One thing President Shirley has to decide is, do we want to concentrate on the Bennett Freeze, or do we try to develop the whole Navajo Nation?" he asked rhetorically.

The main problem, however, is that large influxes of federal funding are virtually nonexistent these days.

"If you're depending on the U.S. Congress for all the funds, you're not going to get there from here," one task force member advised the crowd.

The Bennett Freeze area may, in fact, need trillions, House said. But "We're living in the real world, and in the real world, a government with a trillion dollar deficit is not going to give us a trillion dollars."

That's why planning is so important, he said.

"People at the chapter level need to decide what they need in the next six years, the next 10 years and the next 15 years," he said. "We can't go to Washington and say 'We need everything, and we need it now.' The more detailed a plan we have, the greater our chance of success."

Tó Nanees Dizí Chapter President Frank Bilagody said his chapter is already going ahead with improvements, which drew encouraging comments from the task force.

But Yellowman said the federal government created the Freeze, and it's up to Washington to make sure it's thawed."

"They violated our rights, and now they have to pay," she said. "We want trillions."

Other residents voiced the thought that, since the Freeze area is such a blank slate in terms of development, it might be a good proving ground for green building and alternative energy.

House isn't sure about that either.

"The problem with solar (power) is that, in addition to the high upfront cost, you have to know how to maintain your system and you have to know how to ration your energy use," he said. "It's a huge education issue, and right now I'm having enough trouble getting people to understand how planning works."

How it works, at least in this case, is that residents have until Aug. 20 to submit their comments while the planners formulate a recovery plan for the whole region, to be unveiled Sept. 15.

Comments should be sent to Mikaela Renz-Whitmore, Planner, WHPacific Inc., Ste 400, Albuquerque, NM 87102 or faxed to 505-242-4845 c/o Mikaela Renz-Whitmore.

Comments received after Aug. 20 will be appended to the plan but will not be addressed within it.

To see the preliminary master plans for each chapter and download the task force presentation made to the audience last week, visit



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