The families are unable to hook up to water and electrical services because they are living in unauthorized areas. And negotiating a land swap between the federal government and the tribe could take years because the exchange requires input from the local and state BLM offices, the Navajo Nation and the general public, said Dave Evans, the manager for the BLM Farmington District Office.
Unauthorized occupancy was discussed Wednesday during a meeting of the BLM's Farmington Resource Advisory Council. The 10-member council provides the BLM input on resource and land management issues on local public lands.
American Indian families settling on public lands near Navajo Nation borders is an issue throughout New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. For the BLM Farmington Field Office, the issue is isolated to lands south of Bloomfield along U.S. 550, Evans said.
This land often is referred to as "the checkerboard" because it is a mix of federal, private, tribal and state lands.
"Families are in our offices on a daily basis ... concerned that they cannot get water and electricity in their homes," said Maureen Joe, an assistant field manager for the BLM's Farmington Field Office.
Often, a cluster of around six Navajo families settled in an area and built homes themselves, only to find later that one or two of the homes are built on federal land and are therefore unable to hook up to utilities, Joe said.
"Oftentimes you have a home that is 50 feet away from a water line and can't tap into it," said Gary Torres, manager of the BLM Farmington Field Office.
The Farmington office briefed the council on its proposal to exchange land with the tribe to correct the situation in San Juan County. The agency proposed a 2,000-acre land swap with the Nation in which the BLM gives the tribe federal lands currently occupied by Navajo families in exchange for all of Chacra Mesa, which is near Chaco Culture National Historic Park.
That exchange is awaiting tribal approval and then a public comment period, Evans said.
In the last 20 years, the local BLM office and the Navajo Nation finalized three land exchanges because of unauthorized occupants on federal lands. The tribe and the BLM swapped land of equal value, Torres said.
In 1991, the Navajo Nation received 12,000 acres of BLM land in exchange for 2,000 acres of land on Chacra Mesa and the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area, which is 10,000 acres, Joe said.
Though the families are living on federal land without permission, the tribe said it is important to consider Navajos have lived in this area for generations.
"The courts have identified that tribal members were living there prior to 1864," Michael Halona, the director of the Navajo Land Department, said during the meeting. "If you go and look at some of these sites, you can see old stones where their great grandparents were buried right off to the side of the home."
The BLM said it is working with chapter houses and the tribe to better map the area for potential settlers to prevent the issue from happening in the future.
"This (land exchange) is a Band-Aid to address the human factor," Torres said. "We're just trying to solve the local problems."
The Farmington District Resource Advisory Council has eight members from San Juan County and two from Taos. The council is one of four in New Mexico and provides the BLM with input for issues across northern New Mexico.
The council will spend Today in the field, visiting natural gas production sites, rock crawling areas and trails in the Glade Run Recreation Area.
The group also will see areas where BLM leased land to the city of Farmington and the Farmington Municipal School District.