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Hogans of hope: in Arizona, a project to build traditional Navajo housing helps the community as it heals the forest.

Mae Franklin's office is a traditional Navajo hogan. Through the open door, she can gaze across the Little Colorado River gorge toward the Painted Desert, Canyon de Chelly, and Sisnaajini, the sacred Navajo mountain of the east. Her one-room octagonal building is a good place to work, says Franklin--peaceful and secure.

The cozy hogan in Cameron, Arizona, means much more than office space to Franklin. It holds her hopes for her Navajo community and for communities as far away as Flagstaff, 50 miles to the south. The upright logs, bound together to form an almost circular structure, represent jobs, housing, and cultural renewal for Navajo Indians. The logs also promise forest health and reduced threat of catastrophic wildfire for Flagstaff's 75,000 residents.

Linking these seemingly disconnected goals--of people and places separated both by distance and culture--is a vision shared by Franklin and a growing number of rural community activists across the country. They believe the strength of their local economies depends on the health of their forests and other natural resources.

"Everything that is happening here is due to people thinking outside the box," says Franklin, a warm woman with streaks of gray in her dark hair. A second later she giggles over her own cliche: Navajos have never much liked boxes, she says. "All those square angles make square thinking. A circle reminds you of the sacredness of life."

A gust of red dust swirls around a patch of prickly poppies outside her hogan door, twisting past a pair of horses in a makeshift corral. Beyond the pen are piles of 7-inch-diameter logs, some crisscrossed in ragged heaps, others peeled, sized, and bound in neat stacks ready for shipping. Franklin's office hogan and this wood yard are the centerpieces of Indigenous Community Enterprises, known as ICE, a nonprofit partnership coordinating a bold plan to use the by-products of forest restoration to build traditional housing for Navaho elders.

The hogan project was born out of a pair of near disasters: wildfires that threatened Flagstaff in 1996 and the hopelessness that has imperiled the Navajo Nation in recent years. ICE is using small-diameter thinnings from around 100,000 acres of the Coconino National Forest to build hundreds of hogans. Removing the spindly fire-prone trees will help protect the forest and surrounding communities from wildfire. Preparing the logs for hogan housing will employ as many as 15 Navajo workers at the Cameron plant, which could expand to include the manufacture of other roundwood products. Eventually, hundreds of Navajos could move into new circular structures, which fill ceremonial as well as residential needs.

ICE has already completed two roundwood hogans. A Navajo medicine man blessed the Cameron hogan where Franklin works at a traditional dedication ceremony in August 2001. A prototype for future residences, it has a concrete floor in place of the traditional dirt, and a wood stove instead of an open fire. Four small windows and a skylight brighten the room, which is 24 feet across. To meet the needs of Navajo elders in particular, the Cameron hogan includes an attached kitchen and bathroom.

In January, Navajo leaders held another ceremony to dedicate a second roundwood hogan built by ICE at Leupp Elementary School on the Navajo Nation 40 miles east of Flagstaff. The structure, which uses logs placed horizontally in nine tiers to form an octagon, is part of a five-year program designed to emphasize the culture and tradition of the students, who are nearly all Navajo.

On a windy spring day, Daisy Scott-Dover, a bilingual aide, shepherds 11 frisky kindergarteners into the one-room building behind their classroom to tell the story of this and other hogans in the rich, guttural tones of Navajo. The children are the third Leupp class to participate in a bilingual program that uses Navajo language almost exclusively. Test scores, which were the lowest in the Flagstaff Unified School District, have climbed close to the district's highest, says Michael Fillerup, bilingual director.

"When those children speak to their grandparents in Navajo their eyes just light up. The Leupp hogan is part of opening the school up to the entire community. They think of it as their school now," he says.

DOUBLE DILEMMA

From her hogan in Cameron, Franklin focuses on reconnecting the Navajo community with the forests that were part of their traditional use area. Born on tribal land 25 miles to the north, she left Arizona to attend Brigham Young University, where she earned a degree in horticulture. In 1996 Franklin returned with her husband and five children to Tuba City, where her husband began teaching math and coaches track. She went to work as a tribal liaison for the National Park Service and two national forests.

Franklin was struck by the despair she encountered among Navajos. "They seemed to have given up hope about everything. When I came back, all I could think about was, how can I help?," she says.

At about the same time, U.S. Forest Service officials in Flagstaff were facing a different but equally confounding dilemma. In place of the park-like ponderosa pine stands that greeted Euro-American settlers over a century ago, they confronted dense thickets overstocked with brush and small-diameter trees. instead of 50 trees per acre, many stands sported 2,000. Deliberate exclusion of low-intensity fires, a natural part of the ecosystem, set the stage for far hotter fires and destruction of the few remaining old-growth pines that characterized earlier forests. A spark was all these overgrown thickets needed to burn, says Dick Fleishman, a Forest Service hydrologist and forester.

In 1996, lightning and careless campers provided it. More than 25,000 acres burned in a series of devastating wildfires, several within the Flagstaff city limits. No homes were destroyed but the blazes jolted residents into action to protect themselves and the future of the forests. They formed the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership, now renamed the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership.

The coalition of about 20 organizations launched a multi-year project to restore forest health, reduce fire risk, and rehabilitate meadow and riparian systems on 180,000 acres of the federal and private lands around Flagstaff. On a stormy April morning, Fleishman, the Forest Service liaison to the Forests Partnership, strides through pine needles and branches strewn over the ground at Fort Valley just west of town. Loggers have removed hundreds of tiny trees and, left the litter in rough piles to nourish the soil and provide wildlife habitat.

A hillside just above has a better-kempt look. Here loggers have cut and removed every tree under 12 inches in diameter. Instead of lopping off the branches and leaving them on the ground, they gathered them into tidy hand-stacked piles, which they will eventually burn. Forest Service officials are comparing the economic and ecological results of this handwork to using machines. The Flagstaff forest project involves more than 80 different individual studies using more than 10 techniques for managing the forest.

"There is no one best way to do this," Fleishman says. "We're trying to learn from what we do and apply it to different areas."

Once they have reestablished the natural spacing between trees and restore, the understory plants, the partners plan to reintroduce periodic ground fires. Eventually, they hope fire can resume its natural role in the ecosystem, burning beneath the tree canopy and preventing a buildup of brush and other fuels.

The goal of the various treatments is ecosystem health, not logs for milling into lumber. But the restoration is producing millions of small-diameter logs--more than the Forest Service knows what to do with. Dramatic declines in timber cutting in the last decade have all but eliminated the timber industry from the Southwest. Arizona has just one commercial sawmill in operation, and it's small.

"How do we get rid of this stuff? There's only so much firewood people around here can use," Fleishman says.

CONNECTING NAVAJOS WITH FORESTS

It was Franklin who made the connection between the Forest Service logjam and the Navajos' despair. She looked at the small-diameter trees stacked at the edges of the Cononino Forest and remembered the round, juniper-arched hogans her grandmothers and their grandmothers lived in-homes that smelled like the earth and warming fires. Then she pictured the "metal match-box houses" most elders occupy today. Why not use the small-diameter logs no one seemed to want to build traditional housing for Navajo elders? The grandmas living in dilapidated trallers would remember their traditions if they lived in hogans, she says.

Franklin took her idea to Brett KenCairn, then director of the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership. When they assessed the interest in hogan-style housing among Navajos, the results were stunning. Tribal leaders estimated a demand for 30,000 houses.

In 1999, KenCairn, Franklin, and two others founded ICE to coordinate the hogan-roundwood project. "And off we went, courageously going where no one had gone before," says KenCairn, a nonIndian Wyoming native who has worked more than a decade with forest communities around the West.

They raised $600,000 from grants and donations, converted a vacant building in Cameron, and set up an $800,000 small-diameter sawmill. In late 2001 they hired four people and began hauling logs up the two-lane highway from Flagstaff. The milling plant in Cameron is the only new wood products start-up in northern Arizona in 10 years.

Two years after launching the hogan project, KenCairn now says he may know now why no one has ventured down this path. Funding has been a major roadblock, starting with the $700-per-load cost to load and transport the small-diameter logs. ICE has also encountered higher than anticipated construction costs, mainly in the unique and beautiful truss structure designed to give the buildings longevity. The Cameron prototype cost $60,000, including electricity. ICE built the Leupp School hogan for $50,000.

KenCairn estimates that ICE can build log-shell hogans for $30,000 and can make hogan kits available for half that to those wanting to build their own.

But even this price may eliminate many Navajos on the reservation, where the average annual percapita income is less than $7,000. Nearly every compound includes a hogan, generally irregular mudcovered structures. Most are made out of whatever materials are at hand--forked poles or irregular logs. Even the builders do not expect them to last a lifetime, says Franklin.

The ICE hogans are built to endure, which drives up the cost. It's hard for many Navajos to appreciate the need for such permanent structures. "Shelling out thousands of dollars, not to mention mortgages; the whole thing is new. They're experiencing sticker shock," she says.

ICE's economic development objectives are another challenge. The initial goal was to hire 15 direct employees to saw 8 million board-feet a year. Modest as it is, that scale is proving difficult. It's hard to set up health care and training programs without enough money to support them, says KenCairn, ICE executive director.

"Often 'small is beautiful' doesn't pay living wages, doesn't have an impact big enough to establish an economic niche at a large enough scale."

ICE officials are constantly rethinking everything from other uses for the small-diameter logs to the location of the manufacturing plant itself, says Tony Robbins, president of the nonprofit hoard and a Navajo chapter vice president. Hogans are only part of his dream to preserve Navajo culture through language and traditions, but they offer tangible evidence of what a Navajo-inspired and -operated enterprise can do.

"If this was easy, everybody would be doing it," says Robbins, who like Franklin returned home after earning a degree as a natural resource specialist at Southern Utah University.

ICE got a recent boost from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which selected it to receive a small biomass plant converting wood wastes to electricity. The 15-kilowatt facility will help demonstrate the benefits of a small-scale wood-fired generator to local economies as well as forest ecosystems, says KenCairn.

Another encouragement came from the Navajo Housing Authority, which offered to help fund ICE hogans for elders. That makes traditional housing a choice they have never had before, says Franklin. "The word is out. We even have Navajos coming from New Mexico asking for hogans," she says.

Franklin knows that the hogan project will not solve all the problems for either the Navajo community or the overstocked forests still threatened by wildfire. She knows bringing logs from distant places will not automatically reconnect her people with the natural resources they have traditionally depended upon. But the hogan project is a start that she is determined to continue.

Standing in the open doorway of her hogan, gazing east, she radiates determined optimism. "I know the needs of my people out here. That's all I know. The hope of the people is here, in this hogan. They've seen it dashed so many times. But now we're creating something they understand and will use. We can't let them down."

Contributing Editor Jane Braxton Little covers environmental topics from her home in Greenville, California.
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Author:Little, Jane Braxton
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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