Planning Magazine

After the Bennett Freeze: Planning Within the Navajo Nation

After a 40-year development ban, a tribal community combines local expertise and Geodesign to plan for new land-use and economic development opportunities.

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Before becoming a temporary detour for a well-traveled tourist route, Navajo Route 20 in Arizona was a partially unpaved and unfenced road. Now, it's also a chance for the Coppermine Chapter of the Navajo Nation to improve the community's opportunities. Photo courtesy Arizona Department of Transportation.

A series of unrelated events has opened up significant opportunities for members of the Coppermine Chapter of the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona. Perhaps the most significant event is the lifting of a 1966 federal ban on development in the region, which had been put in place to spur a speedy compromise concerning land disputed by the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe.

The "speedy" part turned out to be wishful thinking. The ban, known as the Bennett Freeze, crawled through the courts and stayed in place for more than 40 years until it was lifted in 2009. No development at all was allowed during that time — not even the building or repair of houses or road improvements. After four decades of stagnation and disrepair that caused significant harm to the community, the removal of the moratorium cleared the way for development to finally begin again.

Then, in 2013, a section of a US highway running through the Navajo Nation collapsed, cutting off the connection between the Arizona cities of Flagstaff and Page, as well as severing a well-traveled route for tourists visiting Lake Powell, Antelope Canyon, Glen Canyon Dam, and Antelope Point. Another road, Navajo Route 20 (N20), was chosen as the detour.

Almost overnight, N20 — a mostly dirt road — was paved and fenced, delivering visitors to those popular attractions, but also giving residents of Coppermine significantly better access to employment, services, shopping, and other amenities in Page. And, with the Bennett Freeze lifted, the community could also explore other opportunities, including capturing some of the tourist dollars flowing through the region — and they could do so in a way that was appropriate to their needs.

Governance, Coppermine, and the Bennett Freeze

As the Navajo Nation has consistently strived to become more self-sufficient, it is empowering its local communities to do the same. In 1998, the Navajo Nation Council enacted the Local Governance Act (LGA) to promote self-sufficiency and local sovereignty for each of the 110 chapter communities across the reservation. Those chapters are the political subunits of the Navajo Nation, possessing local government and community decision making power, including land-use planning.

That's essential, given the Navajo Nation's expansive geographic size (27,000 square miles) and its population of 172,813 people, mostly dispersed in small settlements or scattered housing. Decentralized governance and locally driven planning and decision-making facilitate community development that matches the resources and opportunities of a specific area, the expectations of the people who live there, and a pace and style that is appropriate.

To be certified, the LGA specifies that chapters develop and maintain an updated land-use plan that demonstrates an accounting for natural, cultural, and community resources, which include infrastructure and land carrying capacity. Every five years, an LGA chapter must update its land-use plan. After the LGA was passed, 96 of the 110 chapters developed land-use plans, including the Coppermine Chapter, which consists of about 375 square miles of territory.

However, by 2013, fewer than 10 of the chapters had completed the required five-year updates and few land-use plans were implemented. In a report commissioned by the Navajo Nation, the authors argue that the updates did not take place because many of the plans did not have public participation involvement, limited land suitability analysis and GIS were conducted, and much of the planning was completed by entities who were not part of the community.

In Coppermine and the area surrounding it, things have been further complicated by the lasting impacts of the federal government's Bennett Freeze. The southern third of the Coppermine Chapter falls within the former freeze area, with about 42 chapter families living there. (In all, local sources say there are about 400 people living in the entire Coppermine Chapter, although the 2010 census counted 700 registered voters within its boundaries. )

During the ban, houses could not be built or even fixed, no new infrastructure like water or gas lines could be constructed, and road repairs and road construction was forbidden. This condition created some of the most desolate and poverty-stricken areas within the U.S. The land designations also remained the same, with only scattered housing and grazing allowed. Still today, there is no clustered community development within the area, nor commercial uses.

In 2013, US Route 89 buckled and collapsed, forcing an immediate closure of a 23-mile long stretch of highway and directing a detour to Navajo Route 20. Photo courtesy Arizona Department of Transportation.

In 2013, US Route 89 buckled and collapsed, forcing an immediate closure of a 23-mile long stretch of highway and directing a detour to Navajo Route 20. Photo courtesy Arizona Department of Transportation.

A detour

On February 20, 2013, a roughly 148-foot section of US Route 89 collapsed just outside of Bitter Springs, Arizona. The sole route that directly connected the Arizona cities of Flagstaff and Page, US 89 also is popular for visitors looping between Monument Valley, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and national parks at Zion and Bryce Canyon.

The majority of the collapsed Route 89 was within the Navajo Nation. The closure and resulting emergency detour added 56 miles of total travel to visitors and locals alike, and caused immediate harm to the local tourism-dependent economy, both within and outside of the Navajo Nation.

The cause of the road collapse was undetermined, and because it took place on a cliff ascent, studies were required to repair the section. All told, reconstruction would take several years, which meant that a more suitable detour had to be established while repairs were being made.

The departments of transportation for the state and Navajo Nation chose Navajo Route 20 as the detour. The 45-mile-long road extends northward from an area known as The Gap at the southern tip of the Coppermine Chapter through the LeChee Chapter and into the city of Page. It is known locally as Coppermine Road.

At the northwest corner of the Navajo Nation, the yellow starburst indicates where the road collapsed on US 89 en route to Page, Arizona. Map courtesy of Jonathan Davis.

At the northwest corner of the Navajo Nation, the yellow starburst indicates where the road collapsed on US 89 en route to Page, Arizona. Map courtesy of Jonathan Davis.

The N20 reduces travel distance by four miles when compared to US 89, but there's more to the story. Prior to 2013, 28 miles of the route was unpaved, with residents saying the unpaved sections rode "like a washboard." Further, the road was not fenced, which meant that livestock were free to roam and cross the road. In 2013, N20 simply was not ready for public or high-volume use, although not for a lack of trying.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Navajo Nation had long sought to get the N20 paved. In fact, the required construction studies were already complete, but efforts to secure funding proved unsuccessful. When the request came in for N20 to temporarily serve as the detour for the US 89, the authorization process accelerated, taking only months to confirm instead of years. Paving began June 9, 2013, and the road was opened to the public with limited access on August 29, 2013.

Repairs for US 89 were completed in April of 2015, more than two years after the road had buckled. With the reopening of US 89, the N20 was returned to the Navajo Nation and BIA. It left the Western Agency of the Navajo Nation with a paved and fenced travel corridor that runs through and connects the LeChee, Coppermine, and Bodaway Gap chapters with the city of Page and beyond.

In addition to those connections, N20 also increases the overall access of these areas to surrounding communities, which is important for getting people to work, children to school, and families to shopping, services, and recreation. For Navajo families who lack running water in their homes, passable roads are critical for hauling water, a basic necessity for everyday life. When households are on tight budgets, gas money is a significant expenditure; roads that can efficiently get people to food, water, and services are helpful.

The new N20 offers Coppermine and LeChee the opportunity for new land use and development prospects outside of the traditional grazing that had historically dominated local economies in that area. For the first time, Coppermine and LeChee had the opportunity to capture some of the revenues from the region's significant tourism economy, which had before flowed to areas outside the reservation.

Further, the communities could control the type and pace of development, thanks to the planning processes begun under the 1998 Local Governance Act. The land-use plans created and maintained under the LGA were required to demonstrate consideration of natural, cultural, and community resources, including infrastructure and land carrying capacity. But although local residents possessed expert knowledge of cultural and natural resources, professional planning and geospatial technology capacity was limited. After some research, Coppermine determined that Geodesign would be the right approach to planning in the area

Geodesign and role of planners

The Coppermine Chapter used a Geodesign workshop to update their land-use plans and identify land designations that were now possible with the newly paved road. Geodesign is a planning approach guided by geospatial analysis, and it works to leverage the strengths of GIS, the creativity of design disciplines, and the ability of information technologies to quantify and rapidly share information — all guided by community values. The authors of this article conducted research to evaluate Geodesign to see if it could be an empowering planning approach for traditionally marginalized communities to contribute local knowledge and engage in the planning process.

It turned out to be a good fit for the Coppermine Chapter. The Geodesign planning framework allowed planners to incorporate community values and community vision, organize and create spatial data, and facilitate the development of community-based land use plans.

An LGA-certified chapter"s land-use plan must demonstrate that the guiding principles employed were derived by the local community, and the plan in Coppermine is indeed community-based. In fact, LGA certification presents opportunity for Navajo Nation chapters to have greater say in local matters and to set their own priorities and goals.

Doing this requires planning tools, processes, and assistance. When chapters lack those tools internally or locally, they seek the help of experts outside the community; this is where planners can be of assistance — not to plan for the community, but rather to be a conduit for the process.

Citizens in Navajo chapters know what they would like to fix or make happen in the local area, and they have the ideas and know what makes sense culturally. The planner can help the community actualize its vision, presenting a process for organization, accountability, the identification and prioritization of tasks, and assessment. If the community owns and drives the planning process, that buy-in helps ensure a sustained effort to realize the goals.

In the Coppermine Chapter, the Geodesign approach was an effective way to collect, organize, and create geospatial data to present alternate ways to understand their community. Representatives of the community leveraged visioning sessions to guide new land- use development generated by community members — with guidance from planners within and outside the Navajo Nation. New land uses moved beyond scattered housing and grazing.

In the end, participation in planning by residents of Coppermine Chapter was much greater than in previous planning efforts, and the Chapter plans to move forward with the land-use plan developed in the Geodesign workshop as the foundation for their community-based land-use plan. Change has been a long time coming, but things are definitely looking up.

Jonathan Davis is an instructor of urban planning at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University (ASU) and a former GIS analyst for the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona. Michelle Hale is assistant professor of American Indian Studies at ASU and a citizen of the Navajo Nation. David Pijawka is professor emeritus at ASU's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.