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Grassroots efforts bring firewood to Hopi people

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When a giant coal mine in northern Arizona shut down three years ago, cities that relied on it for electricity pivoted. But it hasn't been easy for residents of the Hopi Nation, who burned coal to heat their homes. From member station KNAU, Melissa Sevigny reports on people who are stepping up to help.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: When word came of a firewood giveaway in a nearby city, Matthew Honanie woke at 4 a.m. to make the two-hour drive from the Hopi Nation and get in line. He and his wife waited for hours, only to be turned away.

MATTHEW HONANIE: We're on the drive home, being sad and all. She kind of came up with an idea of, why can't we help our own people? And when my wife has an idea, I just got to make it happen for her.

SEVIGNY: That was the birth of Koho4Hopi, a grassroots nonprofit to supply firewood to Hopi people. It's one of 60 organizations in a network called Wood for Life. The collaboration in five Western states brings wood from forest-thinning projects to communities in need.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW)

SEVIGNY: In Kykotsmovi Village, on a treeless landscape rimmed with snow, volunteers with chainsaws cut and stack logs that will be sold at a steep discount or given away.

HONANIE: For myself and my wife, it's not really working for that money. It's more working for the smiles, the thank you's, the askwali's, the kwah'kwa's.

SEVIGNY: Askwali is how women say thank you in Hopi; kwah'kwa is for men. Honanie says the pine trees being sliced into stove-sized pieces are huge, but the wood won't last long.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAWS)

HONANIE: It's just one of those things where we kind of have to pick and choose who we're going to give it to. It's a hard thing to think about because a lot of the elders are the ones that are really suffering.

SEVIGNY: Elders like Patricia Selestewa, who lives on Hopi with her 13- and 14-year-old grandsons. Many homes in her village don't have electricity, including her own.

PATRICIA SELESTEWA: Since I can't burn coal, I have to buy wood. But, you know, with limited income...

SEVIGNY: Prices for a cord of wood more than doubled during the pandemic to $400 or $500. Most homes burn at least five cords a winter. Selestewa worries about running out.

SELESTEWA: Especially if we don't have no trucks and no chainsaws or nobody else to - and my grandsons are too, you know, young. I don't think they would be able to, you know, use a chainsaw.

SEVIGNY: There isn't a single organized effort to transition away from coal on the Hopi Nation, which leaves nonprofits to fill in the gaps. The wood stove in Selestewa's home was a gift from Red Feather Development Group, which has swapped out dozens of outdated coal stoves for EPA-certified wood stoves. Alfred Lomahquahu is the program coordinator.

ALFRED LOMAHQUAHU: One of the major problems in Hopi is the lack of employment.

SEVIGNY: ...Which has grown worse since the coal mine closed and took with it hundreds of jobs.

LOMAHQUAHU: So a lot of the younger generation are moving off. That leaves a lot of the older generation to try to fend for themselves.

SEVIGNY: Some burn clothes or furniture. There's a heightened risk of toxic indoor air quality and chimney fires. Lomahquahu says it's hard for the tribal government to act on the crisis because it lost 80% of its revenue when the mine shut down.

LOMAHQUAHU: So now you see a lot more nonprofits stepping up.

SEVIGNY: Red Feather has hundreds of people on its wait list for a new wood stove or for an electric mini-split heater. Arizona Public Service, the state utility, will cover the cost of installing many splits in homes hooked up to the grid as part of a program to assist those hurt by the mine's closure. Laurel Poleyestewa recently got one.

LAUREL POLEYESTEWA: I really, really like it. It's just awesome.

SEVIGNY: Poleyestewa says she no longer has to hang plastic sheets and hole up in her bedroom to stay warm, but she still feels a bit hopeless.

POLEYESTEWA: For a while, you know, everyone was scrambling, and it just seems like now, nobody's thinking about it.

SEVIGNY: Oh, sure.

POLEYESTEWA: And people are still trying to stay warm.

SEVIGNY: She says many have stepped up to help, but there are so few resources and so many people in need.

For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.