Where's the tar?

Paved roads an elusive goal on Navajo Nation land

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Feb. 11, 2010

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(Times photo - Leigh T. Jimmie)

Michael Thompson shovels mud on the road that leads to his house along Navajo Route 12 Tuesday north of Window Rock before he can pick up his wife at work and granddaughter at school.

Every winter, the weather gets bad, the dirt roads turn to muck and thousands of people on the Navajo Nation get stranded.

Every winter, millions of dollars are spent to rescue them or bring them food, water and medicine.

 It begs the question, couldn't some of that money have been spent paving roads so we wouldn't have this problem to begin with?

The short answer is, no. If you're game for the long answer, read on. And try to stay with us.

Drive a few miles off the reservation in any direction, and you'll see a lot more pavement. It's frustrating. But there are reasons for it, say the people whose job it is to know about these things.

"Why don't we have more paved roads on the Navajo Nation?" echoed Arvin Trujillo, director of the Navajo Nation's Division of Natural Resources. "One word: money."

While cities, counties and states have a tax base to draw from, he explained, the Navajo Nation is comprised of non-taxable federal trust land and almost entirely reliant on handouts from Uncle Sam.

And the federal funds, explained BIA Regional Transportation Division Manager Irvin Bekis, do not go far.

"This year, the BIA road funding was capped off at $450 million," he said. "That has to be divided among 565 tribes. Our share is about $50 million."

That sounds like a lot until you learn what it costs to pave a road out here. For instance, paving the eight-mile road to the Black Mesa Chapter House, currently in the planning stages, is estimated at $33 million.

Perhaps the most complained-about road on the Navajo Nation, the pothole-ridden seven-mile stretch of Navajo Route 4 east of Piñon, Ariz., has a price tag of $28 million to pave.

Paving costs vary with the grade, the surface to be paved and other factors, but the main reason road-building on the Navajo Nation is so costly is its remoteness.

"If you're building a road in Gallup or Farmington, it's going to be much cheaper because you're much closer to a water source and an aggregate source," Bekis explained. "The roads in the very interior of the Navajo Nation are some of the most expensive in the country, because everything has to be brought in from a long ways away."

Too much oversight?

But that's not the only problem. Once the five agency road committees agree on priorities for a particular fiscal year, the proposed projects enter a labyrinthine bureaucracy that may draw in grazing permit holders, the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Education, state and county governments, tribal and contracted archeologists, the Navajo Nation Department of Historic Preservation, and of course various accountants and the contractors themselves.

The first hurdle is the right of way, which in most cases must be obtained even if an existing road is being paved.

"When a state or county wants to build a road, they just condemn the land," Bekis explained. "We can't do that on the Navajo Nation."

Actually, the Navajo Nation does have a condemnation ordinance, but the idea of taking land from a people who have already been kicked off their kéyah once is so wildly unpopular it has only been invoked twice in the last 40 years. Both times, officials were able to come to an agreement with grazing permit holders and did not have to resort to actually condemning the land.

In fiscal 2009, only one of the 19 priority projects had a clear right of way. The priority list changes from year to year, and some projects have slipped off without a right of way ever being obtained.

Some rural residents like their ruralness and oppose pavement on principle. The Banana Wash Road in Wide Ruins Chapter and a proposed paved shortcut from Klagetoh to Cornfields, Ariz., have both been held up for years by residents who claim pavement will bring traffic and even crime.

"They're afraid people are going to drive up and burglarize their houses," explained a Klagetoh Chapter employee who asked not to be identified.

Because of the right-of-way issue, nary a penny of President Obama's touted stimulus package is going to pave a Navajo road for the first time.

"We just don't have any shovel-ready projects," Bekis said. "We're using those funds to improve already paved roads."

But once the rights of way are in place, that's not the end of it. Environmental and archeological clearances must be done to make sure the construction won't harm either the fragile high desert ecosystem or the tens of thousands of small Anasazi, Pueblo and Navajo ruins that lie inches under the soil virtually everywhere on the reservation.

According to Bekis, the archeological clearance used to be a matter of "the archeologist driving around the site with me and doing his survey through the windshield."

In the last 35 years, however, laws have been passed that mandate a more thorough appraisal, including the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Archeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

While some, including former Navajo Nation archeologist Robert Begay, have argued for a less exhaustive archeological review of roadside finds, Diné archeologist Kerry Thompson says the holdup to construction is not the science but the bureaucracy.


Thompson is principal investigator for Northland Research Inc., a private firm that is contracted to survey projects both on and off the reservation.

In a recent journal article, she details the routing of archeological surveys for road projects on Navajo - a process so circuitous it defies flow-charting.

Each proposal journeys across the desks of the Navajo Nation president, the tribe's Historical Preservation Office, the Navajo Nation Department of Historic Preservation, a contract administrator and an accountant - three times each.

The actual reports created by the archeologists are subject to comments and revision from the Navajo Nation Realty Office, the U.S. Council for Historic Preservation, other tribes who may have a connection to the artifacts found, and the BIA itself.

Meanwhile, a similar, though slightly less complex, process is taking place for the environmental clearance.

According to Thompson, the process has been known to take up to nine months, sometimes extending into the next fiscal year, when it either has to be extended, scrapped or started over.

"I think that the process is a mystery to almost every member of the Navajo Nation, and because of that people have no idea where to take their concerns," Thompson e-mailed from her Flagstaff office.

Rather than shortchange the science, Thompson suggested streamlining the bureaucratic process or at least limiting the amount of time a proposal can remained "stalled on someone's desk."

But the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. For those outside the government structure, like Thompson, their power is limited to writing articles. Those inside the structure can't even do that. The chain of command is so top-down that there's no mechanism for feedback from those actually touching the papers.

"I agree that the entire process needs to be looked at," Bekis said. "But as a government employee, I shouldn't even be telling you that. My job is to support the rest of the BIA and the Navajo Nation as best I can."

Awkward as it is, however, the process has the advantage of preventing the nation from paving roads willy-nilly.

"It sounds strange, but we have to be careful how many roads we pave," Bekis said. "Once you pave a road, you have to keep it maintained. And a paved road is much more expensive to maintain than a dirt road."

Also, paved roads have a way of generating more dirt roads.

"As soon as you pave a road, people start driving out from it and building houses," Bekis said. "Before you know it, you have 50 miles of new dirt roads that people expect us to maintain."

Meanwhile, back at the chapters, thousands of stranded Navajos wait in vain for pavement.

The Wide Ruins Loop, an important school bus route, has been approved since 2007, and Thompson's company is waiting for approval to start its work. They were just notified their contract has been extended until 2011, meaning it's doubtful work will start before then.

Chapter Secretary-Treasurer Bernice Wilson says she doesn't know where the holdup is, and she hasn't even bothered to find out. She knows what the problem is, though.

"Too many people," she opined. "Too many people have a say."

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