Working Together in Canyon de Chelly National Monument

In Arizona, the National Park Service and the Navajo government are building a better way to run a park.

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Canyon de Chelly lies in the heart of Navajo country—both geographically and politically. When the national monument was created in 1931, the Navajo Nation retained rights to the land, making it the only unit in the country that the National Park Service operates but does not own.

The canyon bottoms—which you can explore only with a Navajo guide—have been a haven for indigenous people for thousands of years. The 1,000-foot-high sandstone walls fortified the Navajo against Spanish, Mexican, and American invaders and hid the tribe during forced removals. Rock art and Puebloan cliff dwellings still line the walls. Sandstone fins and spires—like 800-foot Spider Rock—rise from the canyon floor. Among the twisted rock and deep history, about 40 Navajo families still make the monument their home.

Other parks consult with their indigenous residents or land users, but only here does the land belong to its original owners. That makes Canyon de Chelly unique, albeit imperfect.

At the beginning, the idea was that the Navajo would manage the land, the Bureau of Indian Affairs would make decisions about land use, and the Park Service would take on visitor services and archaeological preservation. Each party operated independently. Communication between them was negligible,
and confusion about jurisdiction was the norm. “Even people within those organizations weren’t clear on who was responsible for what,” says the monument’s NPS Superintendent Lyn Carranza. “There was no collaboration.”

For over 85 years, disagreements persisted about law enforcement jurisdiction, land management responsibilities, and how much development to permit within the monument’s boundaries. The missing piece? A joint management plan (JMP), which would provide a collaborative framework to share—rather than split—park management responsibilities as well as a vision for the future.

The evolution of the partnership makes sense: Who better to help manage the land and provide interpretation for sacred sites than those who have lived there for centuries? And now, a JMP is finally in the works for Canyon de Chelly.

It might not sound like much, but it’s a huge and long-awaited step in the right direction for United States parks.

“There is renewed interest among Native Americans in the U.S. to try and work with the government in returning some of these park services and stewardship back to the Native people,” says Myron McLaughlin, president of the local Navajo Nation chapter in Chinle, the gateway town to the monument.

There’s also renewed interest from the Park Service—a significant milestone in a country with a long history of displacing indigenous people from their homelands. “This is about setting an example for how to have good relationships, and in that sense, I think it can help repair what’s happened in the past,” Carranza says. But righting ancient wrongs is never easy.

The trouble with joint management is that it’s complicated, says McLaughlin. His chapter is one of 110 local governments within the Navajo Nation, and one of five that intersect the monument boundary. These chapters, along with the Navajo Nation, the Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the canyon residents, and the vendors and guides operating in the monument all get a say, he explains.

The bureaucracy slows down decision-making, but there’s plenty to be gained. With strained tribal and Park Service budgets, real joint management might not just be the key for getting all the right voices at the table, but for getting organized enough to unlock more money, too.

“The Navajo Nation can apply for funding NPS can’t, and vice versa, and a lot of this funding requires some kind of partnership,” Carranza says. “With that money, there’s a lot we could do in terms of exotic plant management, caring for archaeological sites, dealing with erosion—the sky’s the limit.”

And it’s not just about saving ecological and archaeological resources. Canyon de Chelly is a cradle of stories and songs. Protecting it is also about protecting a people.

“We’re losing our language,” says Wilson Hunter, a Navajo Nation member and the NPS public information officer for Canyon De Chelly. “How do you balance the Western world with Native cultures?” Hunter believes a joint management plan could be the key to bringing together the new and the old, and finding balance between ancient and modern.

In Canyon de Chelly, all the parties involved are currently working on a strategic planning agreement—a precursor to a JMP. Carranza hopes it will be signed this year.

“It’s a long process, but if we succeed, I think other parks can learn from us,” Carranza says. “Here, we can demonstrate what’s possible.”