Tribe seeks court order to evict longtime ranchers

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) January 2011

Loretta and Raymond Morris have ranched the same 5,500 acres in northwestern New Mexico for more than 40 years, but their time there might be cut shorter than they hoped.

The couple lost out in a bid for a new lease last year, and the Navajo Nation government is seeking a court order to evict them.

The Morrises’ case serves as a test of the tribe’s new system of distributing ranch leases by awarding them to the highest bidder. It was instituted last year after a tribal audit found the previous system had poor record keeping and was running in a deficit, and that inconsistencies promoted favoritism in awarding leases.

Under the previous system, ranchers received almost automatic renewal on their leases every 10 years as long as they complied with the lease terms.

The result of the change is that some ranchers who have renewed their leases for decades, like the Morrises, now face eviction. But proponents say the new system is a fairer way of divvying up the tribe’s land, which they say is to be shared.

The Morrises’ case was set for trial last week, but Loretta Morris said that it has been postponed. A win for the tribe could strengthen its eviction laws and allow its ranching program to bid out more land. A victory for the Morrises would give hope to other former lease holders who have threatened to sue over the bid process.

“It does set some precedent for other lessees,” said Leo Watchman, director of the tribe’s Department of Agriculture.

The Navajo Nation owns 27 ranches on 1.5 million acres that are divided into more than 80 range units, most of which are in New Mexico. The Morrises run 50 head of Angus and Hereford cattle on a portion of the mostly flat Berryhill Ranch near Chaco Canyon, recycling most of their profits into managing the ranch.

The tribe bought the sprawling Berryhill Ranch in 1965, and the Morrises were first awarded a lease for one of the ranch’s units in 1969, Loretta Morris said.

After their latest lease expired in November 2008, a former ranch manager told them they would be recommended for another 10-year lease. A year later, the tribe instituted the new bidding process as recommended by the tribal audit.

The Morrises kept their herd on the land as holdover tenants until they bid for a new lease, paying the required grazing fees. They submitted a range management plan and agreed to pay $7.50 a head – up from the $4 a head they had been paying – in their bid application, but lost.

The Morrises were told they’d have to move their cattle off the land by May, but their attorney says they’re staying put. Jim Zion contends the ranch program lacked clear standards for assessing bids, and he says ranchers were denied due process because they weren’t allowed to inspect the bid documents or protest the awards.

Zion said the ranch program failed to take into account applicants’ experience and any history with the program, and instead granted leases to the highest bidder.

The issue is personal for the Morrises and other ranchers, who tie ranching to tradition and culture. Loretta Morris said the ranch program should honor the former ranch manager’s recommendations, but the tribe says the Morrises already had spent the maximum time allowed on the ranch.

Morris recalled young people visiting over the years to learn about livestock branding and vaccination, and to hone their roping and riding skills.

“It means a lot,” she said. “It’s our livelihood. We grew up with cattle and horses. It’s an everyday chore for us.”

Other ranchers like Justin Yazzie are watching the case closely. He slowly has decreased the number of cattle on the New Mexico ranch his family has managed for decades, but he’s not completely ready to move out. He contends the new bidding process unfairly punishes ranchers like him, who have paid their leases on time, made improvements on the land and prevented overgrazing.

“I have to admit, I’ve loved every minute of it,” said Yazzie, who has filed an intent to sue.

Proponents of the new bidding system say it opened up what were rare opportunities to obtain a ranch lease, and that those who didn’t secure a bid should move on.

The tribal ranch program said the waiting list for the next available ranch had more than 100 names on it when the Morrises submitted their bid in 2008.

“It says in the tribal code that we’re just stewards, that land don’t belong to us,” said David Slim, who was awarded a 5,800-acre ranch southeast of New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historic Park through the new bidding process.

Watchman, of the tribe’s Agriculture Department, said the tribe isn’t discounting those who complied with lease requirements. He said it is “heartfelt” that their bids were unsuccessful, considering some have held leases for decades.

But “we’re not succumbing to saying, ‘We’re going to give you another lease based on your arguments,”’ Watchman said. “There are arguments that range from cultural to ‘I’ve been there for so long – just give it to me.”’