Navajo Nation Council begins its Spring Session on Monday in Window Rock, Ariz.
Navajo Nation Council begins its Spring Session on Monday in Window Rock, Ariz. (Noel Smith — The Daily Times)

Window Rock, Ariz. — Rangeland improvement was among the priorities listed in Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly's State of the Nation address delivered to lawmakers at the start of the spring session on Monday.

Shelly and members of his administrative staff arrived after the Navajo Nation Council started its weeklong session in the council chamber in Window Rock.

Absent from the session was Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim who was attending the funeral service for Navajo Code Talker Samuel Smith, who died last week.

One of the areas of focus in the nine page report was the proposed Navajo Rangeland Improvement Act, which would replace the tribe's Grazing Act

The proposed act would establish grazing fees and set standards for managing trust land.

"The Navajo Rangeland Improvement Act is reshaping outdated policies and empowering our Navajo Department of Agriculture and Department of Resource Enforcement with authorities to truly begin conservation of our tribal lands," Shelly said.

The proposal generated the most comments from delegates.

Delegate Russell Begaye said someone in the Chinle Agency described it as "bigheaded with skinny legs."

"Meaning that this act gives a lot of authority to Window Rock," Begaye said. "At the local level, where the sheepherder is the one holding the permit, almost has no authority. Give some authority back to the (permit holders)."

The council also will consider legislation to fund the completion of feral horse round ups during this session, Delegate Lorenzo Curley said.

He then asked Shelly not to veto the measure if the council approves it.

"Wherever I go, I see packs of horses roaming freely, unrestricted. I see them on the roads, I see them on grasslands, (and) I see them where people graze their sheep, cattle," Curley said. "This needs to be controlled."

The bottom line, Delegate Mel Begay said, is that the reservation land has been "destroyed" because animals roam free. This damage is causing dust and sand to fly during high winds, that is causing asthma and other respiratory problems, he said.

"There are sand dunes forming all over," Delegate Leonard Tsosie said.

Shelly said he agrees that the Navajo people need to share their opinions about the proposed act but, despite the opposition, it is a solution.

Shelly continued the State of the Nation by highlighting the $1 billion in funding the tribe will receive from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address clean up of abandoned uranium mines located throughout the reservation.

Although there are many abandoned uranium mines on the reservation, and the money will provide for the clean up of only 49, it is a start, he said.

The president also said he understands the need for additional scholarship money for Navajo students.

In fiscal year 2014, the Office of Navajo Nation Scholarship and Financial Assistance awarded scholarships to 4,792 students but 6,260 students were declined assistance because of a lack of funds.

He said the Navajo Nation Washington Office is monitoring the progress of the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act in the U.S. Senate which would promote the academic achievement of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children with the establishment of a Native American language grant program.

He highlighted the progress being made under the Navajo Nation General Leasing Act of 2013, which streamlines the process to obtain residential and business site leasing on the reservation and without the approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Another accomplishment he mentioned was securing money to complete the expansion of U.S. Highway 491 from a two-lane to a four-lane highway.

Shelly noted that the Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs has started construction of 75 new homes in the five agencies with the goal to build 300 houses in the next four years.

"We will fund the money to ensure these homes are properly equipped with appliances and heating," Shelly said. "There should be no shortcut when it comes to housing our veterans."

The president also took time to reflect on the situation the tribal government was in five years ago.

At that time, he said, there was turmoil because of the push to reduce the council from 88 to 24 members and the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch exchanged heated press releases but despite that, the government continued to operate.

"It's important for us to remember that it is okay to disagree and have opposing opinions on matters," he said. "What we must practice is being respectful of different views."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.