Gosar wants action in former Bennett Freeze area

Gosar wants action in former Bennett Freeze area By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, 3/16/2011.  WINDOW ROCK – The Navajo Nation is hoping U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, will pick up where former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick left off when it comes to the former Bennett Freeze. And if Gosar’s remarks at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs are any indication, Navajo might have a new friend in Washington.  Raymond Maxx, executive director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, said Tuesday that Gosar and his staff visited Window Rock during the 22nd Navajo Nation Council’s winter session.

“We kind of grabbed him off his route and took him to our office and we had like an hour and a half sit-down with him,” Maxx said. They oriented him on Navajo Partitioned Land, Hopi Partitioned Land, and more specifically, on the Bennett Freeze. “We gave him a big packet we put together and asked him to champion our Bennett Freeze legislation in D.C.”

Gosar received a draft of the Former Bennett Freeze Area Development Act introduced by Kirkpatrick in December “to see if he can introduce it for us right away,” Maxx said. The legislation would create a new trust fund and enable the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe to take on the work of the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation through contracting. It also would authorize the office to oversee a rehabilitation program for the former Bennett Freeze area.

“Our priority is to just get it introduced ASAP this time, not at the end of the term. We emphasized to him that even though Kirkpatrick introduced the bill, it’s not her bill, it’s actually the Navajo Nation’s legislation, position and everything. We went back and forth on it,” Maxx said.

On March 8, the subcommittee held its first oversight hearing on the effectiveness of federal spending on Native American programs, and on President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget request for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians.

Gosar said he was anxious to hear from the witnesses about a long term plan to address the former Bennett Freeze area. “For 40 years, the U.S. government prohibited the Navajo and Hopi tribes from developing any further infrastructure on their disputed land,” he said, adding that today it remains “the most depressed area by far on the Navajo Reservation.”

A recent study commissioned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs found that 77 percent of the homes in the Bennett Freeze area are not suitable for residences, and that nearly 40 percent are without electricity.

“This isn’t the result of anything but pure government inaction, at the expense of my constituents. I am distressed at the apparent lack of action on the part of the current government to address this blight on our society,” Gosar said. “While none of us present here today took part in the initial Bennett Freeze in 1966, the fact is staring us all in the face that it is our responsibility to redress these grievous and unfair wounds.”

Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, said the FY 2012 budget request includes $1.2 million for land development in the former Bennett Freeze area. In addition, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 authorized settlement payments to the Navajo Nation. The budget includes $6 million for Navajo Nation Water Resources Development Trust Fund and $4.4 million for the San Juan conjunctive use wells and San Juan River Navajo Irrigation Rehabilitation Project which are part of the Navajo-Gallup Settlement.

The budget request also includes a reduction of $9 million for the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project. Indian Affairs is evaluating continuing construction on the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, Echo Hawk said.

NIIP is more than 40 years behind schedule. It was supposed to have been finished in the same time-frame as the San Juan Chama Diversion project. It never was. Since that time, the project has been the victim of a series of federal funding cuts.

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