Members of the Hopi Tribe are asking the Coconino County Board of Supervisors for help in finalizing a land transfer that has been promised to the tribe for decades.
It’s the latest effort by the tribe to acquire nearly 150,000 acres of state trust land south of Interstate 40 and east of Flagstaff that is interspersed in a checkerboard pattern with about 160,000 acres that the federal government already holds in trust for the Hopi.
The state lands were promised to the tribe in a 1996 agreement approved by Congress to settle a dispute, now more than a century old, that involved overlapping boundaries of Hopi and Navajo reservation lands.
But so far, the Arizona State Land Department hasn’t taken the action outlined in the 1996 agreement to condemn the trust lands and sell them to the tribe. And recent efforts by U. S. Sen. John McCain’s office and the State Land Department to achieve the same goal through a state-federal land swap met a wall of public opposition due to the inclusion of national forest lands around Flagstaff.
Now, the tribe is trying more of a grassroots approach, reaching out to local governments to support its pursuit of the land transfer either through condemnation or a land swap without the original list of Flagstaff-area parcels.
Tribal Chairman Tim Nuvangyaoma asked the supervisors Tuesday to accompany tribal members to lobby Gov. Doug Ducey and the State Land Department to follow through on condemning the acreage south of I-40.
If that ends up being a dead end, then the Hopi want the county to work with the tribe and the city of Flagstaff to identify federal lands in Coconino County that they would be comfortable seeing become part of the kind of land exchange that was contemplated by Sen. McCain’s office.
Tribal members also met with members of the Flagstaff City Council and made a similar set of requests, Nuvangyaoma said.
“Having you guys stand side by side with us approaching the government at Gov. Ducey’s office would mean a lot to us,” he told supervisors this week. “We'd like to start moving forward and finding some solace and some peace of mind in getting this done.”
The need to acquire the interspersed state acreage is more pressing with the expected closure of the Navajo Generating Station at the end of next year, Nuvangyaoma said. Royalties from coal sent to the power plant make up about 80 percent of the tribe’s budget, so developing the lands along the I-40 corridor represents a potential source of new revenue to fill that looming gap, he said.
The Hopi Tribe has long been alone in pressing for the land transfer, said Thayne Lowe, outside counsel for the Hopi Tribe. It has spent years negotiating with the state on the issue, he said.
But the tribe and the state halted those discussions in December and are now at an impasse, Lowe said.
Nuvangyaoma said the tribe was taken by surprise by maps, released in response to a public records request by the Daily Sun, that showed 9,400 acres of national forest around Flagstaff had been included in a preliminary list of parcels that could be transferred to the State Land Department in compensation for the acreage it would be handing over to the Hopi Tribe.
The release of those drafts earlier this year, which state and federal officials emphasized were far from final, spurred a strong public outcry. In March community members packed a joint city-county meeting to oppose the parcels selected. During that meeting, a legislative assistant in McCain’s office said they had learned rather quickly that those lands are not suitable for an exchange.
Though the board of supervisors didn’t take formal action on the Hopi Tribe’s request, several boardmembers expressed support for the tribe getting the land it is owed under the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute Settlement Act of 1996.
“I think we're at a place where we really need to settle this,” Supervisor Lena Fowler said.