FARMINGTON — Ranchers are gathering in all corners of the Navajo Nation to learn about the potential passage of the Navajo Grazing Act, which could include some unwelcome fees for struggling ranchers.

The Navajo Grazing Act last was discussed in 2004, but it since has gathered dust. While the act was meant to set the guidelines for regulating agricultural resources across the reservation, disputed tidbits of the act prevented the passage of the most significant portions.

While the passed portions called for spotty enforcement of proper grazing practices, the act needed to, and now needs to be, passed in its entirety, the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture said Friday.

Willed by the growing tensions over few resources and a continuing drought, the act resurfaced this summer and is being revisited in an effort to reduce the hardships of those with grazing livestock on the reservation.

Roberta Atcitty knows the struggle all too well. She recalls when her family used to have both horses and sheep grazing on her family's land outside of Shiprock, though now they have no livestock.

"There's nothing," Atcitty said of the land, and she's uncertain that anything besides rains can resolve the issue.

The Department of Agriculture, however, hopes to try. It will attempt to lessen the demand for resources long into the future by restructuring the grazing permit process.


The Navajo Grazing Act, passed in full, would establish three components to help restructure the process:

  • Establish a full time employee to oversee grazing practices on the Navajo Nation.

  • Create a branding office to keep track of grazing livestock on the Navajo Nation.

  • Enforce a grazing permit fee for all those on the Navajo Nation who are in possession of a grazing permit.

    The Resources and Development Committee this past week visited chapter houses in Cove, Ariz., Fort Defiance, Ariz., Chinle, Ariz. and Tuba City, Ariz. to speak to communities about the act and share the three main components of the act.

    Many ranchers were wary of the suggestions, especially the one about the fees. In most areas of the Navajo Nation, except for the Eastern Agency, there is no fee for a grazing permit, and grazing permits in all areas have been loosely regulated since issued to Navajo ranchers in the 1950s.

    Currently, about 10,000 grazing permits exist on the more than 27,000 square-mile swath of land that makes up the Navajo Nation. Only about 3,000 of those permits are in use, though that's not to say they are in compliance.

    Probably about 2,000 of those 3,000 in-use permits are in compliance, said Leo Watchman, director of the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture.

    The permits that are not in compliance either are inactive and need to be canceled, or the permits are being used to account for too many animals.

    For instance, a rancher that has a permit for 15 head of cattle should not have more than 15 head of cattle, said Watchman.

    When the number exceeds the appropriate count, that is when the land is damaged by overgrazing, Watchman said.

    Overgrazing can parch the land, and the results only worsen in a time of drought, Watchman said.

    The fees would range anywhere from 50 cents to $1.75 per animal each month, though the Department of Agriculture has suggested $1.50 per animal.

    For instance, if set at $1.50, a rancher would pay $15 per month for 10 animals — about $180 per year. A rancher with 70 grazing animals would pay $105 per month, and about $1,260.00 per year. Ranchers also will be susceptible to late fees.

    The Department of Agriculture estimates that the collected fees per month would come out to between $102,000 and $149,000.

    The money would be collected from five agencies: Chinle, Fort Defiance, Shiprock, Western and Eastern.

    The most fees would come out of the Western Agency, and the least from the Chinle Agency, according to a report by the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture.

    The fees would total to slightly less than $2.2 million annually, the report said. About $1.8 million would go toward a range management program, which would include a new full time position. 

    The position itself is in dispute because of past issues with similar job appointments. Currently range management is overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, though the position would end the bureau's involvement.

    The remaining funds would go toward an administrative law judge, who would determine which grazing permits were valid, and which were not. The cost of the judge would be about $246,000.

    A brand office, requiring $106,000 also would be covered by the fees, as would other agricultural conservation projects estimated to cost about $399,000.

    "This is really about managing the land that was given to us," said Erny Zah, spokesman for the Office of the President of the Navajo Nation.

    Despite the uncertainty that most ranchers feel about the proposed act, some are open to the idea.

    Atcitty questioned how the proposed act would help distressed ranchers, especially by gathering fees from them. Though, she also could understand how it might help to distribute resources smartly.

    For now, though, she and her family are, for the most part, staying out of it until the drought ends. Her son-in-law has a handful of horses, though he keeps them in a corral.

    Once Atcitty's mother passes her land on to her, Atcitty may move back out to her family's land. At that point, she hopes the drought will have passed and she may acquire some more livestock.

    It probably will not be for a while, though, Atcitty said.

    "We'll wait," she said.