Navajo Nation and BIA sign Bennett Freeze agreement

NAATAANII AREA, Ariz. - Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez traveled to Black Falls Nov. 21 to sign an agreement between the Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to address development in the Bennett Freeze area.

The leaders traveled to Lorrena Sheppard's residence in what is known as the Nataanii Area, near Black Falls to formally sign a memorandum of understanding between the Navajo Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Navajo Region to develop an Integrated Resource Management Plan (IRMP) to address the Bennett Freeze Area.

Both Navajo Nation and BIA personnel will make up an interdisciplinary team to develop and address an Environmental Assessment/Impact Statement, along with other compliance work. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) will spell out team members, define roles and responsibilities of each party, identify project time frames and define the resources to be evaluated.

In developing the goals and policies for the project, the Navajo Nation and BIA hope to form a cooperative relationship that can provide direction for the planning and implantation of a management plan for the Bennett Freeze area.

"I want to congratulate the Begaye-Nez administration for understanding the need for this MOU and agreeing to this high-level partnership," said Sharon Pinto, regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Navajo Region.

According to Pinto, by implementing the MOU, an interdisciplinary team will go out and collect data on the existing natural resources located in the area. The team will then determine how these resources can be utilized in the development of the Bennett Freeze area.

"This is a critical document," she said "I appreciate the administration for seeing that this is the first step toward some real development."

Begaye said the MOU is a way to effectively collaborate between the Navajo Nation and the BIA to bring substantial change within shorter time frames.

"I think collectively we can do more," he said. "Right now, if we're looking strictly at one department or agency to address the many issues that exist, it's not going to happen. The need is too overwhelming."

To see the conditions Bennett Freeze area residents are facing, both Begaye and Nez have toured the area in recent months and listened to the needs expressed by area families. For this reason, Begaye felt it was important to sign the MOU at a residence located in the Bennett Freeze area and not at a chapter house.

"We are here to see firsthand the conditions our people are living in and it's better for us to be where the people are to adequately address their concerns," Begaye said.

Begaye said he sees the MOU as a way to untangle the bureaucracy that can often stifle progress in bringing infrastructure to the area. The response to these needs should be immediate and shouldn't take five or 10 years, he said.

"It's a beautiful country out here. It's peaceful under the open skies and land. However, in the midst of all this beauty, there is so much need that exists among the residents of the FBFA," Begaye said.

More then 60 community members gathered at the Sheppard residence for the day's signing. Afterward, Begaye and Nez gave away over 200 turkey baskets to the gathered elderly and those across the Bennett Freeze for their Thanksgiving meal.

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