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oal conflict: Hopi, Navajo tribes say environmentalists not welcome on reservations
September 30, 2009, 8:21PMFELICIA FONSECA, Associated Press
FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — The leader of the country's largest Indian reservation threw his support behind the neighboring Hopi Tribe, whose lawmakers declared environmental groups unwelcome on the reservation.
Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. and Hopi lawmakers say environmentalists' efforts could hurt the tribes' struggling economies by slowing or stopping coal mining.
Shirley said Wednesday that he will stand in solidarity with the Hopi Tribe, and joined Hopi lawmakers in encouraging other tribes to re-evaluate their relationships with environmentalists.
"Environmentalists are good at identifying problems but poor at identifying feasible solutions," Shirley said in a news release. "Most often they don't try to work with us but against us, giving aid and comfort to those opposed to the sovereign decision-making of tribes."
Environmentalists and tribes have forged partnerships on a number of issues, including opposition to uranium mining and the protection of mountains that American Indians consider sacred.
But coal is another story.
Environmentalists have waged a campaign against coal as an energy source, in favor of renewable energy such as wind and solar. But the Navajo and Hopi long have depended on coal revenues to fund their governments and pay the salaries of tribal employees on reservations where half the work force is unemployed.
On the Hopi reservation, revenues from coal mined by Peabody Energy in northern Arizona's Black Mesa area make up 70 percent of the tribe's $15 million budget. On the Navajo Nation, those revenues make up nearly 10 percent of the tribe's budget.
That coal powers the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., where environmentalists have been pushing for upgrades to reduce emissions. In 2006, environmentalists successfully forced the shutdown of the Mohave Generating Station on the Arizona-Nevada border — the only other customer for the tribes' coal — when the owner failed to install pollution-control upgrades as required by a settlement with environmentalists.
"The tribe is still reeling from that," said Hopi legal counsel Scott Canty. "To talk about taking the remaining revenues away is just unfathomable. It would just set them back tremendously."
Environmentalists also are fighting against a planned $3 billion, 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, saying it would further harm air quality in the Four Corners region. Navajo officials say it will be one of the cleanest coal-burning plants in the nation.
Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club, one of a handful of environmental groups named in Hopi lawmakers' resolution, said the group respects tribal sovereignty and understands the need for tribes to develop their economies.
But unless tribes can prevent carbon dioxide or air pollution from leaving the reservation, he said environmental groups will continue to address the issues that extend beyond tribal boundaries.
"We work with anybody who wants to help protect the environment, stop global warming and transition our economy to a clean economy," he said. "We don't discriminate and we'll continue to honor the invitations we get from Hopi and Navajo communities to work with them."
The Hopi resolution doesn't mean environmentalists will be arrested if found on tribal land. A spokeswoman said it was meant largely as a symbolic gesture.
Coal puts environmentalists and the Navajo and Hopi governments on different sides of the fence, and it also has divided tribal members. Hopi and Navajo culture and tradition teaches members to be stewards of the land. Some view coal as a vital organ of Mother Earth that should be extracted only after thoughtfully weighing the benefits.
Vernon Masayesva, a Hopi and director of the Black Mesa Trust, said environmentalists have helped present the other side to the Hopi Tribal Council's story that water used for 30 years to slurry coal to the shuttered Mohave plant hasn't significantly affected aquifers and that the tribe would be penniless without coal revenues.
"These pro-Peabody legislators are making sure all the obstacles are eliminated, which means barring the environmental organizations who have responded," he said. "They're not coming in on their own. They're here by invitation."
Shirley said the Navajo Nation supports the goals of many environmental organizations, and pointed to a commission to create green jobs and a 2005 ban on uranium mining as examples of good working relationships.
But he said some Navajo environmentalists and the non-Navajo environmental groups that support them work to the detriment of tribal government and Navajo people.
"Unfortunately, many of these people don't know about Navajos, sovereignty or self-determination," he said. "They just want any use of coal stopped. However, coal is the Navajo Nation's most plentiful resource, and our prosperity depends on it."