Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The Navajo Nation is seeing a surge in visitors following the reopening of neighboring national parks and monuments, President Jonathan Nez said during a U.S. House subcommittee hearing Tuesday.
Nez expressed concerns that those reopenings could worsen the COVID-19 pandemic in tribal areas where he said coronavirus cases remain high. Nez said visitors may not be aware they are subject to regulations put into place to stop the spread of the virus and may be subject to fines.
He, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., and others participating in the hearing criticized the reopening of parks such as the Grand Canyon.
“Over the weekend, we had a lot of traffic,” Nez said. “Memorial Day weekend, we had a lot of traffic.”
Nez said he was surprised there has been no outreach to states and visitors “to let them know if they are in our nation, they will be pulled over, and they will be cited $1,000 for disobeying the curfew.”
‘There was so much traffic here,” he said. “I haven’t been given the numbers from our police department, but I’m sure it’s high. … We don’t want visitors to be detained. We don’t want them to have to pay a $1,000 citation because they are going through our lands.”
The Navajo Nation ended its weekend-long curfew this week, but a daily curfew remains in effect from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Nez voiced concerns to U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt with the Navajo Nation being close to federal parks and points of interest including the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon in Utah and Chaco Canyon. The two met during Bernhardt’s visit to Albuquerque two weeks ago.
Bernhardt told the Journal he would be willing to work with the Navajo Nation on issues concerning the reopenings, and mentioned an agreement to keep a route from the Grand Canyon into the Navajo Nation closed.
“But it wasn’t strictly enforced, is what I’m hearing, from the park’s end,” Nez said. “We have visitors coming through on the way to Page (Arizona) and Lake Powell.”
Bernhardt said parks and monuments are being reopened in a responsible manner with the health and safety of park employees, visitors and residents of the communities taken into account.
That is something Haaland and Phil Francis, chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks dispute. Haaland said the Trump administration has chosen to politicize access to public lands “at the expense of public safety.”
“Look at what happened at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (on the North Carolina-Tennessee border),” Haaland said. “Less than a day after reopening, parking lots were overflowing with visitors from 24 different states, many without wearing masks.”
“There has been no national leadership, no plan,” Francis added, calling the opening “piecemeal.”
He said people were ignoring barricades to closed areas at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and “social distancing was not observed.”
Bernhardt said masks did not need to be worn in outdoor areas where social distancing can be observed, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Nez said Bernhardt told him he was opening all parks “because his boss (President Donald Trump) wanted all the parks open.”