Lost logging legacy

Red Lake struggles to retrieve its former grandeur

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

(Editor's note: In an effort to chronicle the beauty and diversity of the Navajo Nation, as well as its issues, the Navajo Times has committed to visiting all 110 chapters in alphabetical order. This is the 67th in the series. Some information for this series is taken from the publication "Chapter Images" by Larry Rodgers.)

NAVAJO, N.M., Jan. 2, 2014

(Times photo - Ravonelle Yazzie)

Red Lake, once big enough to boat on and stocked with fish, has been reduced to a puddle in recent years as authorities prepared to have it dredged, only to learn there was no money for the project. It is slowly starting to fill up again.

While most chapters on the Navajo Nation boast an Anasazi ruin or two, Red Lake Chapter has for years been known for its contemporary ruin.

Since it closed in 1994, the Navajo Forest Products Industry's massive sawmill has stood sentry at the northern entrance to this otherwise picturesque community, falling ever further into disrepair and used as a canvass by every graffiti artist in the area.

Until, that is, last summer, when Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly initiated demolition and cleanup of the site.

These days, those who remember the ungainly landmark may drive right by Navajo, N.M. -- Red Lake Chapter's largest community -- without realizing they've passed it. Native Sun Materials of Thoreau, N.M., has been chipping away at the massive project and turning the tons of concrete at the 100-acre industrial park into roadbed material.

The Navajo-owned company has been a good neighbor, according to Red Lake Chapter's Community Services Coordinator, Pauline Garnenez, even providing fruit and turkeys for the chapter's Christmas celebration.

House of logs

Like many people in Navajo, Garnenez was not sorry to see the ruin go.

"It was really sad to see the skeleton of the mill" if you're old enough to remember it when it was up and running, she said.

Red Lake at a Glance

Name: Named for the large, shallow reservoir along Navajo Rte. 12. It was drained in 2011 while awaiting funds from the Bureau of Reclamation for dredging, but the funds never materialized. It is now slowly filling up again, but drought has dried up some of the water sources that fed it.

Population: 2,028

Land area: 44,000 acres

Major clans: Many Navajo clans are represented in this area because people came from all over to work at the sawmill.

Assets: natural features such as Fuzzy Mountain, Frog Rock and Green Rock; the lake, elementary, middle and high schools, a shopping center, a park with a playground. A good dirt road to Assayi Lake starts here. The community also recently got its own fire station, thanks to the intercession of McKinley County Commissioner Genevieve Jackson.

Problems: Until last summer, when it was torn down, the old Navajo Forest Products Industries sawmill attracted vandals and graffiti artists. Now the major challenge is finding a new tenant for the 100-acre industrial park the sawmill vacated in 1994. Neatly bisected by the Arizona-New Mexico state line, the chapter also faces jurisdictional issues and complications with grant funding that isn't supposed to spill into another state.

And, like many people here, she wishes it were still operating.

"I think it was really not right, the way they shut it down," she said. "A lot of people lost their jobs. They lost their vehicles. Some were building homes. There were children going to school. It affected them really drastically here."

Also like most residents of Navajo, Garnenez is not a member of an environmental group.

"I don't really care for Diné CARE," she quipped.

In a pitched battle in the early 1990s, Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment and other environmental organizations rallied against NFPI, saying it was harvesting the forest faster than it could be replenished and demolishing the habitat of spotted owl and other endangered species.

In 1993, Diné CARE's lead activist on the project, Leroy Jackson, was found dead in his van near Taos. The state medical examiner ruled it an accidental drug overdose, but to this day, there are plenty of people who believe Jackson was murdered for his beliefs.

While Diné CARE generally gets the blame or credit for shuttering the logging enterprise, the group states on its website that the 30-year-old NFPI was bleeding money and collapsed "mostly under the weight of its own losses."

Whatever the case, the tribe's logging business rolled and took 650 decent-paying jobs with it. This chapter has never been the same.

Resuscitation efforts

Not only did the jobs disappear, explained Pauline's daughter Prestene Garnenez. Some of the lumber plant's proceeds had been funneled into the Navajo Townsite Community Development Corp., which was supposed to transition into an arm of a full-fledged township government at some point.

"We were supposed to become a township like Kayenta," Prestene explained, "moving toward a mayor-and-council government. For a variety of reasons I still don't completely understand, it never happened."

At its peak, the corporation funded mill worker housing, a recreation center with an indoor swimming pool, a park, a dental clinic, a library, store and café.

Now all that remains is the park (pretty much a big open space with playground equipment in one corner), the vacated recreation building, and the housing, much of which is vacant and vandalized.

Prestene, a professional planner, and a handful of other concerned townsfolk recently formed the Red Lake Navajo Community Action Group. Its ambitious mission: to get back Navajo's former glory.

The first target will be the park, which they hope to landscape and festoon with nice walking trails, and the recreation center.

"We're taking a look at it to see if it can be saved," Prestene said. "If not, we need to tear it down and start over."

In the meantime, the building is no longer the eyesore it once was. Frustrated with painting over graffiti almost monthly, the CAG decided to enlist the graffiti artists as partners.

Redefining art

"While we were painting over the graffiti, we were saying, 'You know, a lot of this isn't bad,'" Prestene recalled. "'There's some talent here.'"

Thus was born The Red Lake Mural Project, using the recreation building as a canvass. Instead of ugly gang tagging, the building is now covered with brightly colored animals, people and abstract designs. One panel contains the words "Navajo N.M. hope," which is exactly what the CAG is trying to promote.

"What this community really needs to get back," said Prestene, "is its morale."

To that effect, the CAG is exploring the possibility of a charter school that would employ hands-on learning to integrate with community projects.

It would, of course, compete with the local school system, which is barely hanging on as it is since the mill closed and a lot of younger families moved away.

"We're literally going door-to-door, talking to people about whether the charter school is something that would be good for the community," Prestene said.

A town, however, cannot survive on grants alone. At some point, Navajo will have to replace the industry it lost.

The tribe has been actively advertising the industrial park where the mill used to be, one of only nine such sites on the Navajo Nation. So far there are no takers, and Pauline hopes the Council will be picky if a suitor comes calling.

"They need to involve the people, not just do what Window Rock wants for the community," she opined. "I hope by the time we get the site cleaned up, the chapter is certified."

Meanwhile, tearing down the dereliqct old mill has been a good start.

"It's revealed a view a lot of us who were born after the mill was built have never seen," noted Prestene. "You can see up toward Bowl Canyon. It's really beautiful."

It is, one might say, the view of the future.

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