08/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Navajo Nation Starting Green Jobs Initiative

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Supporters of an effort to create green jobs on the Navajo Nation say a newly formed commission will help to spark creation of a private sector on the reservation and to market the traditional way of life.

Navajo lawmakers voted during their summer session this week to establish the Navajo Green Economy Commission and approved an account to fund the effort Wednesday. Both measures now go to President Joe Shirley Jr.

The commission isn't expected to be fully functioning for at least a couple of years while the community needs and the economic landscape are surveyed. The fund also is empty. One of the first duties of the volunteer commission will be to secure funding to promote small-scale projects that could include a textile wool mill, farmers' market or renewable energy plants.

"The (Navajo) Nation has not looked at some of these industries as real, viable industries that we ought to create policy, that we ought to create incentives, create markets for," said Tony Skrelunas, a former economic director of the tribe.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the measures, but delegates raised concerns about how to fund a commission during a recession, whether its power was overreaching and whether it would compete with existing projects for tribal funding. The speaker of the Tribal Council will appoint the commissioners and a committee the speaker chairs will oversee it.

"It's too broad and I hope the president becomes alert to that and vetoes it," said Delegate Leonard Tsosie.

The Tribal Council had tabled the measure during its spring session.

Supporters pitched the measures as concepts that weren't new to Navajos. Tribal members have grown their own crops, made their own jewelry, and raised sheep for its wool and for use in traditional Navajo dishes for generations.

They also said it was necessary to move away from what has greatly contributed to the Navajo government's general fund -- royalties from coal, oil and gas. But the council hasn't strayed from keeping projects that utilize natural resources alive.

The most prominent example is a proposed 1,500-megawatt power plant that Shirley has said would be one of the cleanest coal-burning plants in the nation. The council has made all the necessary approvals for construction to go forward, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has asked an appeals board to remand the air permit it granted.

"The idea is that they can work together and they have to," said Natasha Johnson, a legislative staff assistant. "We can't keep relying on coal and large development projects that aren't good for the environment."

Enei Begaye, a Navajo who was part of a coalition that pushed the council to approve the green jobs legislation, said the coalition envisioned the commission as a way to stimulate the economy on the reservation where half the work force is unemployed.

Some 70 percent or more of the money generated on the reservation is spent in border towns, and about half of businesses on the reservation are Navajo-owned, according to the tribe's Division of Economic Development.

Begaye said job creation as a result of the commission is years down the line but could include weatherizing homes and building new ones according to green standards. She said the commission is expected to seek stimulus funds, grants and other funding from state and federal governments, the private sector and the Tribal Council.

"There's not going to be jobs created tomorrow, but within five years, we expect thousands of jobs and training for new jobs," she said.

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