Development Slow A Year After Construction Ban Lifted

Monday, December 24th 2007, 7:35 am
By: News On 6

TUBA CITY, Ariz. (AP) _ The pavement stops abruptly here, giving way to a sandy, washboard road that takes residents to a place where tires keep roofs from blowing away and electricity and running water are scarce.

A sign once posted here read: ``Now you're entering third world country. Bennett Freeze.''

The poverty and lack of infrastructure that is entrenched on the western side of the Navajo Nation _ the country's largest Indian reservation _ was worsened by a 40-year freeze on building and improvements imposed by the federal government.

A year after the freeze was lifted, development is barely creeping forward.

No money has been allocated by the federal or tribal governments to rehabilitate 700,000 acres of land that constituted the Bennett Freeze area. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, has, however, provided $1 million for a one-year study of what sort of development should occur.

``That area has been neglected for many, many years, and it is going to be a huge challenge to rehabilitate,'' said Tim Varner, a member of a task force established by Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. to recommend planning.

``At this point it's anybody's guess exactly what the extent of the need is out there,'' he said.

On the 27,000 square-mile Navajo Nation, which extends into parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, residents are deeply rooted in the land, which they use to raise livestock and farm.

When the Hopi Tribe claimed Navajo land it said was its aboriginal homeland, a decades-long dispute between the two tribes ensued. In 1966, then-U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett imposed a ban on new construction or improvements that prohibited extension of water and electrical lines unless approved by the Hopis.

Hardly anyone thought the freeze would last very long. The tribes finally reached an agreement last year, and a federal judge signed an order in December 2006 lifting the freeze.

But few people have had new houses built since the freeze was lifted, and only a handful have received electricity through the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

For residents like Anne Jackson, who live within a one-mile radius of a religious site, construction still is banned. It's ``hopeless to hope,'' she said.

On the south side of Tuba City in Kerley Valley, Jackson opens the door to her one-room hogan. It's outfitted with light switches, light fixtures, water faucets and a bathroom, but none work.

Two plywood outhouses sit on the back of her property _ one for each gender. The foundation of a mud hogan she once lived in lies next to another ceremonial hogan that is patched up with old plywood and plastic.

This is where Jackson remembers playing store, herding sheep and gathering water from a nearby spring.

``No matter what, I want to stay here, and let my grandsons live here, grow up generation to generation,'' she said. ``But I would like to have a house built for them. That's my main concern.''

While the task force is discussing how various tribal agencies can help, Varner cautions, ``it's probably a drop in the bucket in terms of what's actually needed out there.

Varner said he does not expect any major projects to be planned for at least another year. He said they likely won't be completed without federal funds.

``The expectations out there are very high,'' he said. ``This whole Bennett Freeze issue has been dragging out for many, many years, and I think people thought as soon as the agreement was reached and the freeze was lifted, there'd be immediate action.''