FARMINGTON —The Bennett Freeze is now thawed.

A 40-year construction freeze that prevented about 20,000 Navajo people from making capital improvements on 70,000 acres of land was lifted early this week with the signature of a U.S. Federal District judge, according to George Hardeen, communications director for Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr.

He said that U.S. District Judge Earl H. Carroll in Phoenix signed the order and final judgment on Monday. The Navajo Nation received word of the signature late Tuesday afternoon.

"It means the end of litigation between the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. In all cases, 1934 statutory freeze area, most importantly it means the lifting of the 40-year-old Bennett Freeze," Hardeen said.

In 1966, then U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett imposed a ban on construction - even minor things such as broken windows or roof repairs - on the disputed acreage, including extension of water and electrical lines.

Hardeen added that the Navajo Nation has already begun to look at how it will help the families effected by the Bennet Freeze.

"Naturally, it'll be years before infrastructure is available, but the Navajo—Hopi Land Commission has already been working with Congress to draft rehabilitation legislation. We need millions of dollars to be invested in this area to bring the people out of the time warp they've been living in," he said.

The agreement between the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe for the lifting had to have the approval of tribal leaders from both nations, as well as Department of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, before the document went to Carroll.

Navajo Attorney General Louis Denetsosie was unavailable for comment.

"The lifting of the freeze will end extreme hardship for thousands of Navajo families. No longer will they have to live out of ice chests and do without services, such as running water and electricity, the rest of us take for granted," Hardeen said.

Erny Zah: ezah@daily-times.com