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matiella

Nick Matiella, a legislative staffer for Sen. John McCain, speaks at a packed city-county meeting about a federal-state land exchange proposal involving tracts around Flagstaff on Monday night

More than 9,000 acres of national forest around Flagstaff that were being considered for a trade to the Arizona State Land Department are more than likely off the table for such an exchange.

State and legislative officials delivered that message to a standing-room-only crowd in the Flagstaff City Council chambers Monday evening.

It was welcome news to attendees who were largely opposed to the possibility of those federal lands being moved into state hands.

The Monday meeting was called by Flagstaff City Council and the Coconino County Board of Supervisors to discuss the state-federal land swap, proposed to fulfill a 22-year-old promise to the Hopi Tribe. The agreement gives the tribe nearly 150,000 acres of state trust land south of Interstate 40 east of Flagstaff in order to settle a Navajo-Hopi land dispute that dates back more than a century.

Staffers in the office of Sen. John McCain had been exploring the idea of a federal land trade in recent years as a way to compensate the Arizona State Land Department for the acreage it would need to shift to Hopi hands, said Nick Matiella, a legislative assistant in McCain’s office. Under an initial draft proposal, McCain’s staff and the State Land Department identified 83,000 acres for a potential trade, 9,400 of which are parcels on the Coconino National Forest around Flagstaff.

That initial proposal had been sent to the city and the county and was obtained by the Arizona Daily Sun through a public records request to those governments.

During Monday’s meeting, Matiella stressed that the parcels were the result of informally “throwing spaghetti at the wall” to see what federal land possibilities existed.

“We learned rather quickly that the lands in question are not suitable” Matiella said to applause from the audience.

Matiella said discussions about the land trade stopped a couple of months ago and McCain’s office is looking for guidance from city and county leaders about how to reboot the process and how they would like to be involved moving forward. He and State Land Department Commissioner Lisa Atkins both said local participation, transparency and government consultation have always been their intent -- they just hadn’t had the chance to do all of those things before their initial map proposals were published.

Members of the public who spoke at the meeting came out strongly against the transfer of federal lands around Flagstaff to the state. They brought up concerns that recreation access could be restricted, that forest management would suffer and that the lands could eventually be developed.

“I support the Hopi people getting the land that is owed to them as soon as possible but I really don’t want to see Flagstaff’s public lands traded away as part of the deal,” Jeff Goulden said.

The parcels in question, he said, “are some of Flagstaff’s best recreational and open space assets.”

Nearly every speaker expressed a similar sentiment, supporting the transfer of state lands to the Hopi but objecting to the use of the Flagstaff-area federal acreage to make that happen.

During his time at the podium, Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma emphasized that the tribe simply wanted the federal government to stand by its word and isn’t trying some sort of “land grab” for Forest Service lands. With the closure of the Navajo Generating Station in 2019 and the loss of the nearby coal plant that supplies it, the Hopi Tribe stands to lose about 85 percent of its operating budget, Nuvangyaoma said.

The tribe sees the state land along I-40 as an opportunity to diversify its economy and mitigate the impacts of the power plant’s closure, he said.

“The single most effective thing the government can do to help the Hopi Tribe weather this storm is to live up to the promises made in 1996 and allow us to obtain our settlement lands,” Nuvangyaoma said.

Both elected officials and members of the public expressed frustration, however, that the responsibility of fulfilling those promises seemed to be falling at the doorstep of local communities. They also asked why it wouldn’t be possible for the federal government to pay for the state land sought by the Hopis, instead of needing to provide compensation via a land swap.

Matiella expressed doubt that federal money would get approved for that purpose, especially because the Hopi were already awarded a cash settlement as part of the Navajo-Hopi land dispute agreement. When asked about that money, Nuvangyaoma referred this reporter to tribal lawyers.

Matiella said that given current circumstances, a land swap is the best way to resolve this final element of the 1996 settlement agreement.

The city and county boards ended the night by drafting a letter to McCain and Rep. Tom O’Halleran. They outlined their disappointment with the federal government’s inability to follow through on its land agreement with the Hopi and urged the legislators to explore the possibility of paying for the state land in cash, rather than through an in-lieu land exchange. The two governments agreed they want a revival of discussions about resolving the decades-old land settlement agreement and they both want to be stakeholders in those talks.

“That ability to reboot would be extremely helpful,” Matiella said.

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