Speaker LoRenzo Bates testifies before Congress opposing land division bill

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Joint Press Release

Contact: Jared King
Communications Director
Navajo Nation Washington Office

Jared Touchin
Communications Director
Office of the Speaker, 23rd Navajo Nation Council

For Immediate Release

Speaker LoRenzo Bates testifies before Congress opposing land division bill

WASHINGTON—On July 15, Navajo Nation Speaker LoRenzo Bates provided testimony in opposition to HR 1028, a bill introduced by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.). This bill would divide approximately 21,000 acres of land and infrastructure in the former Fort Wingate Depot Activity located in McKinley County, New Mexico, between the Navajo Nation and the Zuni Pueblo.

“The Navajo Nation appreciates the leadership of Chairman Young and Representatives Pearce and Lujan on this important issue, but at this time the Navajo Nation cannot support this measure,” said Speaker Bates.

On April 16, 2015, the 23rd Navajo Nation Council endorsed a resolution withholding support for any Fort Wingate land division legislation unless certain issues are addressed.

This bill does not address the Navajo Nation’s concerns in four areas. First, there’s no provision in this bill identifying protection and easement accessibility to tribal religious and burial sites. Second, there is no assurance stipulated in the bill for the federal government to continue its responsibility in funding ongoing environmental cleanup operations. Third, the bill does not contain language restricting the development or operation of gaming facilities on the Fort Wingate lands. Fourth, Congress does not affirm the Navajo Nation’s authority to negotiate the extension of existing rights of way on the lands or new rights of way on apportioned parts of the Fort Wingate lands.

Based upon a U.S. Department of the Interior memorandum from 2009, Speaker Bates said “it looks like the language of HR 1028 could provide a loophole around the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act’s prohibition against gaming on lands acquired in trust after 1988. The Navajo Nation is against the development and operation of gaming on these historically and culturally significant lands.”

Tribal gaming is regulated through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). Section 3 of this bill would allow tribes to place land in restricted fee status. The Navajo Nation is concerned that the legislation would allow for gaming on lands acquired after IGRA.

In 1997, the Navajo Nation and the Zuni Pueblo came together to expedite the transfer of the land directly to the tribes as opposed to allowing the traditional Navajo land to be open for bid by any parties.

As part of the Base Realignment and Closure Act agreement, all of the land that could be cleaned-up would be remediated by 2020, allowing both tribes to have a clear picture of the total land available for a fair distribution.

The land must be remediated before it can be transferred. However, not all the land that is potentially available to be transferred will be remediated to a sufficient level to be transferred.

“A significant amount of the land will not be able to be remediated to a satisfactory level either due to the level of contamination, or because of a lack of funds available for the cleanup. We cannot know for certain that all of the lands as envisioned in this legislation can be transferred as planned,” said Bates.

The Navajo Nation wants assurances in the legislation that cleanup will remain the financial and physical responsibility of the federal government. The Navajo Nation is concerned that the federal government will escape ongoing responsibility to clean up the contamination and hazardous materials on the land, soil, air and water.

“The Navajo Nation is eager to see a resolution to this matter and to begin utilizing the land. The process will include going back to the Navajo Nation Council for their consideration on supporting any changes to this bill,” said Speaker Bates.

Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) said he intends to move the bill forward even if the Navajo Nation and the Zuni Pueblo do not come to an agreement. “This has gone on long enough and I plan to move it along,” said Young.

Current law provides the secretary of the Interior the authority to extend the deadline for another 20 years beyond 2020 should the tribes not come to any agreement on the division of this land.