Navajo Forestry Faces a Cultural Challenge

In 1991, the Navajo tribal government assumed primary management responsibility over the forest resources on the reservation. It immediately found itself in a highly public controversy over the cultural implications of that task. Ironically, this conflict aries from the resilience of the Navajo, or Dineh, as they call themselves, who have succeeded in recovering from near-destruction in the mid nineteenth century to a growing population toady.

In the 1860s, the U.S. government tried to relocate the Navojo, along with the Apache, from their homelands to New Mexico. The Navajo had to walk 250 miles, only to be subjected to an assimilation project. When the government abandoned this human and financial disaster, the few survivors walked back to their homeland. Navajo refer to this tragic episode as the Long Walk.

Not only did the Navajo recover, but they have thrived in the twentieth century. Around 200,000 Navajo live on and near the reservation, and the number is growing. However, as the population rises and reservation life modernizes, the forests resources that historically sustained the Navajo Nation are under increasing stress. The number of hogans (the traditional eight-sided log cabin)in the forest rise yearly. Navajo timber harvesting contributes to the pressures by opening up uninhabited areas. Moreover, the Navajo have severely overgrazed the forest, degrading lakes and streams and hastening erosion. Overgrazing also contributes to poor forest regeneration.

The problems are not just economic. Logging operations affect the traditional land uses and cultural resources of the Navajo forest. Indeed, poor forestmanagement would endanger Navajo culture, which is rooted in the sublime beauty of the Navajo land. Traditional Navajos have a deep spiritual bond with the forest and view the natural environment as provider and parent. Humans, as the children of that natural world, must respect and learn from it - or it will cease to provide for their needs. In other words, Navajo forest managers face a cultural challenge as they accomplish their mandate to draw on the commercial potential of the tribe's natural resources.


The Navajo Nation occupies a 24,000-square-mile reservation, about the size of West Virginia. Located in the U.S. Southwest, it is a land of high deserts, deep canyons, towering monoliths, forested mountains, and long, lingering sunsets - an arid environment of stark beauty and ecological fragility.

The Navajo commercial forest is a community forest that provides both physical and cultural sustenance. It comprises nearly 700,000 acres, of which about 500,000 acres area available for tribal logging. Timber operations began in the Navajo forest in the 1880s.

Although the forest comprises less than 5 percent of the reservation, the winter snow pack in the relatively small area is an important source of water in a dry land. Moreover, plush forest supports a modern timber industry, while many Navajo pastoralists use the forest for grazing their animals each summer. At the same time, the forest hosts valuable cultural resources. It is the location for religious ceremonies and contains numerous sacred areas. It also provides native medicinal herbs and supports the traditional pastoral lifestyle. In addition, the summer residents depend on forest resources for fuel wood, construction material, and food.

About three decades ago, the Navajo hired outside managers to design and organize the present timber mill in Navajo, New Mexico. A tribal corporation, Navajo Forest Products Industries (NEPI), manages the mill, which went into operation in 1962, and contracts with local logging businesses to harvest timber and supply the mill. The Tribal Council appoints a board of directors of Navajo and Anglos to run NFPI, which generates tribal revenue and employs about 400 people on a reservation where jobs are scarce.

Until recently, forest management was the province of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and it applied typical Anglo-American management techniques - taking out timber and preventing and putting out fires. In a step toward taking over management from the BIA, the Navajo Forestry Department (NFD) became a contractor for thinning operations in the early 1970s. Between 1982 and 1990, the NFD contracted for about half the BIA's forestry duties. And since 1991, in an historic advance for natural-resource self-determination, the NFD has contracted for all forest-management duties except for suppressing fires and some activities relating to improving forest stands.

The Navajo Forestry Department has aggressively adopted modern management techniques to help balance the multiple demands placed on the tribe's resources. NFD calls its approach, which is based on the principles of managing many resources as a whole, the "Legacy Forest." The goal is to manage the forest to meet current resource needs within the constraints of preserving the ability of the ecosystem to provide for the unknown resource demands of future generations. The NFD works closely with the Northern Arizona University School of Forestry in Flagstaff to incorporate advanced technology to support this "multiresource management system."

As Navajo forest managers struggle to develop and implement appropriate management techniques, they face a challenge: to sustain timber production, provide for traditional uses, and protect the forest ecosystem and cultural resources. This delicate balancing act was disrupted in 1992 when controversy engulfed NFD and NFPI. Environmental groups protested and legally contested the NFD's new management plan, calling it short-sighted and culturally insensitive.

Nevertheless, the NFD had recognized the need to address social issues even before the uproar. In conjunction with the Northern Arizona University Native American Forestry Program, it supported research to identify the resource needs of forest users, determine how logging operations affected them, and obtain their opinions about forest management. In fact, this research certainly heightened and awareness of the forest residents who participated in it, and may even have sown seeds for the environmental activism of 1992.

For this research project, I surveyed forest residents during the summer of 1989 in forestry compartment 34, which was scheduled for harvesting, and compartment 15, which had been recently harvested. Most of the interviews were conducted in Navajo with the help of a translator. This study found that timber operations have had a varied impact on different traditional uses, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. For example, logging operations make it easier to collect fuel wood and poles. However, the slash left behind often hinders grazing and is aesthetically unpleasant. Overall, most forest residents approve of NFD logging, recognizing the importance of the money it generates for the tribe and the employment it provides. However, most residents also feel that the forest could be managed better to show more respect for the land and the people who live there.

During the summer of 1990, the social-forestry research consisted of team visits to households in the soon-to-be-harvested compartment 34. Each team consisted of two NFD representatives, a medicine man, and me. Although we invited local political representatives to join the team, they did not. Families in particular regions were brought together and consulted about the timer operations that were planned for their area of the forest. The team answered questions and listened to the ideas of local land-users on how the operations could be done in a way that better served their interests. These suggestions included better post-harvest rehabilitation, better protection for sacred sites, and improving communications with NFD, especially to clarify forest regulations.

Discussions among the community, the NFD, and others are continuing. The NFD wants to determine which - if any - forestry activities can be carried out in sacred areas. Until now, large sections of forest land identified as sacred areas have been excluded from all forestry activities. This topic requires more research, as well as close cooperation between the NFD and Navajo cultural experts.


Despite these efforts by the NFD - and perhaps partly because of them - a group called Dinesh Bi Wilderness Society asked the BIA in March 1992 to halt logging operations in compartment 34 until a more thorough environmental study could be conducted. In late May, the BIA responded with an order to half all logging in the compartment. As a result, NFPI had to postpone hiring 100 people for the spring harvest, and the mill was threatened with being closed down altogether. The local newspapers were full of stories and editorials about the controversy, and public forums were held to discuss the issues.

Two weeks after the halt in logging, the Department of the Interior overrode the BIA's order due to a the economic hardship that closing the mill would incur. Logging resumed, but NFPI had to delay putting into effect its 10-Year Forest Management Plan, which was supposed to start in 1992. The old management plan - which is less environmentally and culturally sensitive - has been extended to the end of 1993 to allow time to get more public input and conduct an Environmental Impact Study. The EIS will be contracted out, although the tribal government has yet to find the funds to finance it.

Leroy Jackson is one of the leaders of the Navajo environmental movement, which now goes by the name Dinesh Citizens Against Ruining the Environment (Dinesh CARE). He claims that the 10-Year Plan contains a number of technical inconsistencies and that NFPI actually loses money for the tribe. According to Jackson, if the annual harvest of 40 million board feet is maintained, "the mill would cut themselves out of business." He feels that timber harvesting in the Navajo forest is not sustainable and that the tribe must find other jobs for timber workers. He has also expressed concerns about preserving sacred areas and protecting wildlife.

One of Dinesh CARE's greatest fears resolve around NFD's intention to log all the oldest trees in the forest. Jackson refers to these as old growth or grandfather trees and believes they should be preserved as wildlife habitats and to enrich Navajo culture.

To the forestry department, these trees (known as yellow pines because of the bark color of older ponderosa pines) represent slow-growing stock. NFD believes that is policies exclude enough of the commercial forest from harvesting to preserve the diversity afforded by the oldest trees. For example, NFD has excluded two-thirds of compartment 34 from harvesting, including steep slopes, buffers for lakes and streams, buffers for home sites, sacred sites, Mexican Spotted Owl habitats, and stands of such protected tree species as blue spruce.

If the process of developing a new forest-management plan bogs down and a more culturally and environmentally acceptable 10-Year Plan is not developed, then the NFD will appear ineffective. Such as a result could make it harder for other tribes to assume management responsibility for their natural resources, Jon Martin, the NFD forester in charge of developing a 10-Year Plan, suspects that some people would like to see the whole process self-destruct. According to Martin, this will be the first EIS ever to be carried out on a Native American forest-management plan. This will be a critical test for tribal natural-resource self-management in general.


Since the controversy erupted in 1992, public activism has forced the Navajo Forestry Department to reevaluate its priorities. Although the department had begun to recognize and address the unique cultural-management requirements of its forest resources, it apparently did not little too late.

According to Dexter Gill, NFD forest manager, the dispute has emphasized the importance of cultural considerations in Navajo forestry and made people aware they have a voice in future forest plans. As the Navajo Forestry Department responds to the needs of local land-users, it is attempting to be culturally sensitive in its forest management. The department is in the process of gaining more public input into the forest-management plan and has set up interdisciplinary teams to comprehensively address the numerous demands on the precious forest resources. In addition, the multiresource management system the NFD has adopted is a promising approach to addressing "social forestry" issues.

The way the tribe's forest resources are managed will be an important factor in the battle for Navajo cultural survival and political self-determination. New forest-management techniques are needed that fit the special circumstances of the communal resource that is the Navajo commercial forest. To develop appropriate forestry technology that utilizes and respects traditional Navajo environmental principles will require a forthright commitment to this process of integrating forest residents and cultural representatives into the planning process.

Throughout their history. the Navajo have enhanced their culture by learning from others. They adopted flood-plain agriculture and weaving from Pueblo Indians. They learned sheep herding from the Spaniards. And they have learned how to lobby Congress and acquire land from the U.S. government to expand their reservation to over four times the original land grant. This adaptability has been key to the survival of the Navajo Nation. As the Navajo struggle to preserve their culture, protect their natural resources, and keep pace with the modern world, this history bodes well for meeting the difficult challenges ahead.

The Navajo experience with forest management also demonstrates the important cultural role that social forestry can play for indigenous groups. In the Navajo Nation, the cultural repercussions of forest management drew attention to the need for the social forestry research. As the NFD develops more ways to manage Navajo forests, it can serve as an example for indigenous peoples throughout the world as they seek to address the cultural consequences of exploiting their own natural resources.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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