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Native Americans’ right to live off land is essential


For centuries, Native Americans – just like my fellow farmers – have called upon the land they call home to make their way in the world.

It should be no surprise then to see members of either community speak out forcefully when their right to live off of the resources that their land provides comes under attack from the outside.


Steve Sossaman

Such an affront may sound like a thing of the past, but it’s happening as we speak in Arizona, where the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe are standing alongside a local regulator and organized labor in defense of the Navajo Generating Station, a 2,250 megawatt coal plant that’s operated effectively for decades on Navajo land.

Last week, the heads of the Navajo and Hopi issued a statement decrying the lack of transparency and honesty in their talks with the Salt River Project (SRP), managing partner of the power plant. SRP had just blindsided the tribes with news that they are exploring immediate closure of the plant, which is slated to operate through 2044. The closure would also impact the Kayenta Mine, which provides coal fuel to the plant and which currently has no other customers.

The news came as a crushing blow to the tribes, and to the surrounding communities that depend on the two facilities as a source of 3,000 jobs, essential tax revenue, and billions in economic input.

The Hopi and Navajo were not alone in expressing their concern. Arizona Corporation Commissioner Andy Tobin sent a letter calling on the head of Salt River Project to “look beyond its spreadsheets” and abandon the “myopic calculus of the worst sort” that had led to the decision to pursue early closure.

Tobin, the Hopi, and the Navajo were unanimous in their demand for an open, transparent process in lieu of a unilateral decision on the part of Salt River Project, with Tobin going so far as to note his deep concern with the Salt River Project’s “surprisingly hostile attitude toward the Navajo Generating Station.”

If these seem like strong words, perhaps it’s because the impact of closure would be so profound.

For starters, the people of Arizona depend on the Navajo Generating Station for affordable power and water – likely more than they even realize. In addition to providing the electricity that consumers depend upon, the Navajo Generating Station also provides 90 percent of the power needed to pump water through the Central Arizona Project – the state’s single largest source of renewable water. Unilateral action on the part of Salt River Project would strain this supply.

For farmers like me, it’s simply not possible to make a living in a drought-stricken state like Arizona without reliable, affordable access to the water that Navajo Generating Station plays a crucial role in pumping throughout the state.

For the Navajo and Hopi, who look to the plant and mine as their very economic lifeblood, the threat at hand is existential.

Tribal communities are already among the most stressed in our nation, facing high unemployment, lagging public services, and a dearth of economic opportunity. The Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine, however, are bright spots for the Hopi and Navajo.

The tribes, in other words, have a lot to lose in this fight. They stand to surrender the fundamental building blocks of their economy, and to do so without an opportunity to make their voice heard as they seek to defend their right to capitalize on the bounty of the land they have called home for centuries.

Mineral and land use rights have always sparked great passion, especially in tribal communities. The protests at Standing Rock demonstrated an alternative form of that passion on display (even if it was ultimately co-opted by environmental activists with questionable goals and a casual relationship with the facts).

For the Navajo and Hopi, the passion is being channeled into passionate defense of the Navajo Generating Station, and a demand that their voices are heard. Farmers would do the same if our land rights were threatened in this fashion, and I’m proud to stand alongside the tribes today.

Salt River Project should not be empowered to take a unilateral action with such sweeping consequences for the tribes or for the state at large, which would lose around $18 billion in gross state product in the event of closure.

The tribes are entitled to this economic lifeblood, and they are right to call on elected officials – including President Trump, who has expressed a desire to maintain coal’s role in the economy – for help.

Their very future is at stake.

Steve Sossaman is owner of Sossaman Farms


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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