WITH one of the largest privately managed forests in the Southwest, the Navajo tribe has long relied on their vast stands of ponderosa pine for lumber, employment, and revenue.
But like loggers in the Pacific Northwest, Navajo leaders are facing a new and growing environmental lobby and the need to protect spotted owl habitat. And the recent death of a Navajo environmental leader is causing renewed debate over logging on the reservation.
``What's happening on the Navajo is a microcosm of the problems we are having on public lands in the Southwest,'' says Alex Thal, director of the Southwest Center for Resource Analysis at Western New Mexico University in Silver City.
Professor Thal says that the spotted owl issue, along with public pressure to reduce logging, has forced five timber mills in Arizona and New Mexico to cease operation over the past two months, resulting in the loss of some 500 jobs in rural communities dependent on the timber business. Overall, some observers suggest, the timber harvest in the Southwest will be reduced by 50 percent to 75 percent over the next few years.
On the Navajo reservation, forestry director Robert Billie says the annual cut will be reduced by 50 percent over the next few years. ``In part because of the growing environmental movement, I believe we will be going into ecosystem management,'' he says.
The Navajo forest, covering some 500,000 acres, has been providing lumber since 1882. The Navajos confined their operations to logging until the 1960s, when they saw an opportunity to exploit their forests and increase employment by opening a large sawmill called Navajo Forest Products Industries (NFPI).
But critics contend that the tribe is sacrificing the health of the forest for jobs. ``It's like a social service program that is happening at the expense of the environment,'' Leroy Jackson said in late August.
Mr. Jackson was a leader of Dine Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, a Navajo environmental group formed two years ago, until his mysterious disappearance and death earlier this month. Jackson, who was last seen in Taos, N.M., on Oct. 1, was found dead in his van on Oct. 9 in a highway rest area in northern New Mexico. His friends, who say Jackson received numerous death threats, are calling for a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe of the case.
Members of Dine CARE vow Jackson's death won't stop their activism. The group is currently opposing a timber sale that would affect one of the last old-growth stands of ponderosa pines in New Mexico. In one of Jackson's last interviews, he said that the old trees are part of traditional Navajo culture.
``Trees are sacred offering places. This fight against the cutting is in defense of our beliefs and the beliefs of the elders. Once cut, there is no guarantee that we will ever get these 300-year-old trees back,'' Jackson said.
NFPI officials admit that they are losing money and the operation owes the tribe several million dollars in fees for trees that have already been cut. But, they argue, closing the mill would hurt an already-depressed reservation economy.
Some 151,000 Navajos live on the reservation, the country's largest. The average annual per capita income is just $5,958 (the United States average is $19,092), and the unemployment rates hovers around 40 percent. The lumber mill, with 400 employees and an annual payroll in excess of $8 million, is a major tribal enterprise.
Moreover, mill officials suggest that environmentalists' concerns about forest depletion are overblown.
``The [forest] growth rate is up and mortality is down. By all reasonable measures, the Navajo forest is growing and healthy,'' says James Carter, the area forester for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
But critics contend that the tribe is cutting too much and reforesting too little. Some 20,000 acres of tribal land need to be reforested, but tribal officials can only replant about 600 acres per year.
A.K. Arbab, a botanist and plant pathologist, began the first large-scale replanting effort in 1979. He now operates four automated greenhouses on the Navajo reservation that produce ponderosa pine seedlings for replanting. But the greenhouses can't keep up with a backlog of lands needing reforestation that grows by 2,000 acres annually.
``If you can't ensure the future growth of the forest, you shouldn't cut it,'' Mr. Arbab says.