Tséyi' tour guides angry at new fees, regulations

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Dec. 16, 2010

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For years, a group of tour guides and residents in Canyon de Chelly has been agitating to get Canyon de Chelly National Monument out of the hands of the federal government and under the control of the Navajo Nation, saying that they were chafing under the National Park Service's onerous regulations.

Now that the Navajo Department of Parks and Recreation is starting to manage tourism at the park, the guides are finding out the tribal government has about twice as many regulations for them, and much higher fees.

At what was supposed to be an informational meeting here Tuesday, about 60 guides and canyon residents showed up and railed against the new management, saying they can't afford the $1,000 annual fee the tribe will charge them for taking tours into the canyon and don't want competition from outside vendors the tribe will allow in under its policies.

In addition, the tribe's regulations require vendors to be certified in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, submit a copy of their commercial vehicle license and driving record, have commercial insurance on all vehicles and each employee, and develop an employee manual that includes training for handling emergencies that arise in the canyon.

"Are we putting a price on our own land?" asked one woman. "The most sacred place in the whole nation, probably the U.S., the whole world, and you're putting a price on it!"
"Do you understand how difficult it is for businesses that (depend on) tourism?" queried a young male guide. "We don't get a paycheck every two weeks!"

Mike Rollins, who will be the park manager for the new Canyon de Chelly Tribal Park, caught most of the flak, but said he was merely implementing policies that are already in place for tribal parks.

"The Tour Guide Act of 2005 that you guys are complaining about, that was here before I was," Rollins said.

"'This is the law, this is policies,' - that's for bilagáanas," a woman retorted.

Deadline extended

Rollins said the only thing he was authorized to change was the deadline for the fees, which were due yesterday, Dec. 15. He gave the guides a three-month extension on the dues, which did not seem to placate them much. They have until Dec. 31 to file their new paperwork.

Rollins told the guides he had been advocating for them with his bosses, the Parks Department's Senior Programs and Projects Specialist Martin Begaye and Director Ray Russell.

"Where are they?" asked a resident. "We want to see them here."

Rollins said he had asked them to come but was told they had other engagements.

He also said income is necessary to operate a park, and a portion of the proceeds from the fees would be put into a fund for the canyon residents to use for various projects, such as road improvements and a trash collection area.

Rollins said he would work with the guides on ways to make the fees less onerous, such as organizing tour companies into groups that could then split the cost and share the paperwork.

Some residents didn't like the proposed tribal park's boundaries, which would include about 30,000 acres not covered by the national monument.

"This one requires public hearing!" a resident declared. "We're not going to let these 30,000 acres to the Navajo tribe."

Rollins said the new acreage, which includes Slim Canyon, Little White House Canyon and Three Turkey Ruin, would be withdrawn to protect the natural and cultural resources in the areas, which are presently being degraded by unchecked visitation.

"Otherwise, the status quo is going to remain the same," he said.

Feeling betrayed

Members of Tséyi Diné, a group that had organized to prevent a tribal takeover of the park, said they felt betrayed by the Navajo Nation government. They collected more than 260 signatures on a petition, and in 2008 convinced Chinle Chapter to pass a resolution preserving the status quo until a joint management plan could be implemented between the tribe, the BIA and the National Park Service, they noted.

The chapter even appointed a committee to resurrect and update a joint management plan from the 1990s that had been rejected by then-President Peterson Zah because it had no provisions for legal liability in the canyon.

A draft plan was completed last year, but when it was presented to the Council's Resources Committee, the delegates rejected it on grounds that it had not been prepared by an official entity of the Navajo Nation, recalled Adam Teller, president of the ad-hoc committee that prepared the plan.

That plan had included the possibility of overlaying a tribal park onto the national monument, but Teller said he was "blindsided" when about three months ago, he was told the Resources Committee was going to go ahead with a tribal park even though no joint management plan is in place.

Teller said he was informed the committee had done some research and found out there was nothing in the 1931 act of Congress establishing the monument that prevented the tribe from controlling tourism in the canyon - in fact, that right was specifically reserved for it.

Still, tour guide Barbara Shirley said it seemed unjust to expect the guides to suddenly comply with a host of new regulations that it took the tribe 79 years to implement.

"They've had since 1931 to do this, and now they want to do it before the next fiscal year!" she lamented. "I do not feel that I personally should have to pay for the tribe's tardiness."

The national monument's superintendent, Tom Clark, urged the guides to stop venting at Rollins, who was only following orders, and instead to call Russell and their new Council delegate, current Chinle Chapter President Leonard Pete.

"This action was taken by a lame duck Resources Committee," Clark said. "Nobody knows what will happen with the new Council ...
"You have a lot of passion for this area," he said. "Let your voice be heard!"
Tour guide Victoria Begay offered to draft a chapter resolution opposing the new strictures on behalf of the Canyon de Chelly Tour Guides Association.

In the meantime, Clark said, Park Ranger Nora McKerry will be available to answer guides' questions and walk them through the new paperwork.

A draft resolution on the issue is on the agenda for the Chinle Chapter meeting scheduled Sunday, Dec. 19.   

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