An effort to fulfill a decades-old federal commitment to the Hopi Tribe could mean thousands of acres of Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff will get transferred to state hands.
Lands near the base of Mount Elden, northwest of Walnut Canyon and near Forest Highlands were among the parcels nominated for transfer after very preliminary discussions between the office of Sen. John McCain and the Arizona State Land Department.
Talk about the land swap began last year when, at the request of the Hopi Tribe, staff in McCain’s office began exploring options to transfer to the tribe nearly 150,000 acres of state land south of Interstate 40 and east of Flagstaff. The land is interspersed in a checkerboard with parcels the federal government already holds in trust for the Hopi.
The acreage had been promised to the tribe under a 1996 agreement approved by Congress to settle a dispute, now more than a century old, involving Hopi and Navajo lands. More than two decades after that settlement became law, the land has yet to be put into Hopi hands.
Now, the tribe faces the loss of coal royalties that make up about 80 percent of its budget due to next year’s planned shutdown of the Navajo Generating Station and the nearby Kayenta coal mine.
“The Hopi Tribe’s best chance to help improve and diversify our economy is through the settlement lands that we were promised,” former tribal chairman Herman Honanie wrote to McCain in September. Honanie urged the senator to find a solution that would finally bring closure to the Navajo-Hopi land dispute.
“The Hopi Tribe fulfilled its obligation under the 1996 Settlement decades ago but the federal government has not,” Honanie wrote.
He suggested that the federal government pursue a land exchange to sidestep a problematic requirement in the original settlement that the nearly 150,000 acres of state land be condemned before they are sold to become tribal trust land. Under an exchange, federal parcels could instead be used to compensate the state for the value of its land, though such an alternative will need approval by Congress.
Agreeing with the need to "bring finality to this matter," McCain’s office asked the State Land Department to identify parcels of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land that would have equivalent value to the I-40 acreage promised to the Hopi and would make sense for an exchange, said Lisa Atkins, the land department’s commissioner.
The department came back with a list that includes 83,000 acres, 9,400 of which are on the Coconino National Forest. The idea was to select federal lands that would have equal value to the ones the state would be handing off, aren't already under a special designation like wilderness and would “have some synergy with holdings in the (state) trust already," Atkins said. The department also wanted to maintain a footprint of state lands in northern Arizona, she said.
Atkins would not say where the rest of the proposed acreage is located, only that it is northern Arizona and includes BLM land.
In general, the State Land Department has the option to sell its lands or lease the acreage for development, Atkins said. Management changes on state trust land also aren’t subject to public comment periods like those required for actions on federal lands.
Atkins said her department doesn’t know enough about the resources to be able to say what it would do with land if it is transferred from the Forest Service, for example. She emphasized that the state doesn’t tend to sell off its trust lands and still has ownership of 90 percent of the property it was originally given by the federal government to manage for the benefit of schools.
Atkins and McCain’s staff made clear that the initial proposal that includes parcels around Flagstaff was just a first crack at what land might make sense for a transfer. The areas in focus could completely change as discussions progress and other agencies are brought into the process, they said.
In a written statement, McCain spokeswoman Julie Tarallo said the senator will remain engaged with local communities to get their input before moving forward with any proposal on a land conveyance. McCain's office has started drafting language for the transfer, called the Navajo-Hopi Land Acquisition Implementation Act of 2017.
Tarallo added that the outcome could benefit northern Arizona by allowing for more economic development along I-40 and better conservation and ecosystem restoration with a switch to state management.
But such a substantial change in land ownership would likely affect several of Coconino County’s planning documents, said Matt Ryan, chair of the county board of supervisors. Forest Service lands aren’t conceived as having any potential for development under county plans, for example. If that changes, it could have major impacts for people who have already bought property or are planning to do so based on the county’s plan.
“We would want to be involved...before anything would transpire associated with this,” Ryan said. “This would be an area where our communities would have a distinct interest."