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Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie says format of scoping meeting didn't offer people "an opportunity to have everyone hear their comments"

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SHIPROCK — A public scoping meeting hosted by a team of Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials this morning at the Shiprock Chapter house ended abruptly when the chapter's president insisted on changing the format of the forum.

"I want to express my concern and disappointment with the process instated here at a public hearing," said Duane "Chili" Yazzie to those gathered at the Shiprock Chapter house. "This is not a public hearing. In our culture, we get up and talk, that’s how we conduct our meetings."

The event was the first of a series of eight public input scoping meetings planned this month at various Navajo Nation chapter houses. The meetings are a collaborative effort by the BLM and BIA to examine management of public, private and tribal lands. After the public input period ends Dec. 20, a notice of intent will be published in the Federal Register.

After hearing Yazzie's objections, BLM and BIA officials decided to change the format to allow public comment in an afternoon meeting at the Huerfano Chapter House.

The format of the morning meeting included eight tables staffed by BIA, BLM and third-party contractors. Tables displayed information on issues such as cultural resources, oil and gas leasing and development, livestock grazing and natural resources.

Members of the public who wanted to provide comments could do so at individual tables or through a comment box on one of the tables. They could also email comments or send them by mail.

After stating his objections to the meeting's format this morning, Yazzie demanded to know who was in charge of the event. Richard Fields, field manager for BLM's Farmington Field Office, identified himself as the official in charge.

"This is not a hearing or consultation, this is a scoping meeting," Fields said. "If you want a consultation, we’ll have to come back later."

Yazzie asked Fields why the agencies were collecting comments if the meeting was not a consultation. He added he would have appreciated being consulted about the format prior to the meeting.

Yazzie then opened the floor for public comments. Fields repeated that was not the planned format for the meeting. He said if public comments would be solicited, he would shut down the meeting.

"Then shut it down," Yazzie said.

Fields ordered the meeting to be halted, and the government officials proceeded to pack up their materials and leave the building.

After the meeting, Yazzie told The Daily Times he didn’t believe much collaboration with the Navajo Nation had taken place about the scoping meetings.

"It’s almost like a divide-and-conquer tactic," he said. "The general body of people don’t have an opportunity to have everyone hear their comments. Everyone should be able to hear what everyone has to say. This (current format) is more of a secret."

Yazzie said although seeking public input by government officials is a positive move, for cultural reasons, a public hearing format is essential.

"We won’t continue to be dictated to by government agencies, particularly when it involves our lands and our resources," he said. "The people who are directly impacted by development are the ones that need to be heard."

The afternoon meeting at the Huerfano Chapter house, which included a public comment period, was less eventful.

"We re-evaluated the format, and it's evolving," BLM spokesman Zach Stone told The Daily Times. "We'll continue to evaluate how future meetings will be handled."

BLM District Manager Victoria Barr said the BIA and BLM team is striving to be flexible and accommodating and was glad to change the format for the Huerfano meeting.

"We're responding to concerns we received," Barr said. "We rent the chapter houses for the public meetings, and typically there isn't a consultation with the chapter president before the meeting. But we certainly understand their request and for this (Huerfano) meeting, we moved forward to coordinate with the chapter president. If future meetings need tweaking, we'll make those decisions."

At the Huerfano meeting, following an hour-long "open house," the floor was opened to the public, with Chapter President Wilson Ray Sr. providing opening comments.

"These people (BLM and BIA) need information," Ray told those gathered. "It's very important that you give them information so they'll know what's going on,"

Stone said discussions about a possible re-scheduling of the Shiprock scoping meeting are ongoing.

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.

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