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PACT AIMS TO ENSURE WELFARE OF NAVAJO CHILDREN

Gov. Mike Leavitt and Navajo Nation President Albert Hale have signed an agreement that allows Navajo courts to intervene to ensure Navajo children who need to be removed from their families are not removed from influences of the tribe's culture.

The Child Welfare Services Cooperative Agreement signed Monday is the result of more than two years of negotiations between the state and tribal human services officials and conforms with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.Merlin Grover, who headed the negotiations for San Juan County and who now is retired, attended the signing and called the agreement "rewarding and just the beginning of many more such agreements."

Leavitt and Hale were joined by County Commission Chairman Tye Lewis in signing a memorandum of understanding that is designed to foster cooperation by the three entities over contentious issues rather than having to resort to legal wrangling.

"We have begun to forge a new relationship . . . new ways of doing things and making sure we address these issues instead of having them linger and contribute to continued misunderstanding," said Hale after the signing in the new Utah National Guard Armory in Blanding.

The memorandum outlines creation of a committee of representatives of the state, San Juan County and a member of the Utah Navajo Council.

One of the first items for discussion, said Leavitt, is how to bring relief from a drought plaguing San Juan County, which has had only 36 percent of its average precipitation.

The County Commission delivered copies of an emergency drought declaration to the governor that outlines the severity the lack of moisture has had so far on the largest county in Utah.

Compounding the drought problem for county ranchers are record low beef prices and record high prices for feed.

David Adams, a former state representative for the area and a cattle rancher, said Monday many cattle ranchers in the county will be selling off more than half their cattle in the next two weeks just to stay in business.

Leavitt also conducted a ceremonial signing of a bill passed by this year's Legislature that returns a portion of the oil and gas severance tax from wells in the Aneth area of the reservation to a special fund for infrastructure improvements on Navajo lands.

The bill sets up a five-member committee to administer the fund similar to the way the Community Impact Board disperses mineral revenue funds to communities around the state affected by mining and oil and gas extraction.

The bill, approved earlier by Leavitt, goes into effect July 1 and is expected to generate $400,000 the first year with more than double that in the future.

Leavitt said the fund will require a matching grant from any source.