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When the largest coal-fired power plant in the western U.S. shut down late last year, it marked the end of an era for the Hopi Tribe. The Navajo Generating Station once brought hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in royalties to the Hopi Tribe. Now tribe leaders are trying to figure out how to replace it all. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: For decades, coal has been at the center of Hopi life, literally. In the middle of each home is a coal-burning stove that keeps families warm through the winter.
LEIGH WAYNE LOMAYESTEWA: A lot of people relied on the coal to heat their homes and ceremonial chambers, the kivas. And now, you know, we're only relying on the cedarwood.
MORALES: Leigh Wayne Lomayestewa, who works in the tribe's cultural preservation office, says cedar doesn't burn as long as coal.
LOMAYESTEWA: Usually, at nighttime, you can put in about two or three times a night.
MORALES: In addition to heat, the tribe relied on the coal industry's royalty checks to cover 80% of its budget. Two years ago, the plant's operators, a group of utilities, voted to shut it down. Natural gas had become cheaper than complying with the coal plant's air quality regulations. Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva says that's left both Navajo and Hopi Tribes scrambling to find new sources of revenue.
CLARK TENAKHONGVA: So with really nothing right now over the horizon, with what revenues we have, what investments we have over the last 40, 50 years, at the level we're operating, we could survive another six to seven years on what we have.
MORALES: That doesn't give them much time to come up with a new way of making money. Tenakhongva says they have many options. It's just a matter of agreeing on one.
TENAKHONGVA: We've got property in Winslow. We've got the I-40 corridor that has mass amounts of land that could be developed.
MORALES: He understands this might take some time, but the Hopi could eventually say...
TENAKHONGVA: Yeah, this is a Hopi casino. Yeah, this is the Hopi ranches, serving nothing but prime Hopi beef.
MORALES: There's also tourism. Guide Meredith Qotswisiwma drives up the switchbacks to the historic Walpi Village. She says tourism has been a challenge because of the tribe's location. They're isolated, completely surrounded by the Navajo Nation.
MEREDITH QOTSWISIWMA: We're in a remote area, so money-wise, it's hard for us to go out and even advertise our tourism program. So it's really hard.
MORALES: The Hopi here working with the Navajo to build a road that would loop them into popular destinations, like Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly for tour companies coming from Las Vegas. The tribe is even open to unusual ideas, like the one pitched by engineer T.J. Agardy, who came to a recent tribal council meeting. Agardy is proposing technology used in Germany and Japan to harvest coalbed methane and turn it into natural gas.
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TJ AGARDY: When we're done, that equipment stays here. You now have the ability to take and power yourselves up for the next 300 years. If you look at what happened before, you're left with an empty hole and a lot of empty promises.
MORALES: The Hopi are cautious about any of these possibilities because they've been burned before by the federal government, other outside investors and even by other tribes. But more than ever, Vice Chairman Tenakhongva says he's trying to hold on to what he calls his Hopi optimism.
TENAKHONGVA: The sun will come up tomorrow. We will continue to live but maybe not at the level of the comforts of what we have had.
MORALES: He knows many people have left the reservation, and many more will follow. But Tenakhongva says he's not going anywhere. He's got two years left of his term, and he plans to find a solution before his time is up.
For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
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