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Forestland giveaway.

In a land-claim settlement that pleases almost no one, the feds plan to dole out half a million acres of forest--including 200,000 that belong to all of us.

Tucked away at the offices of the U.S. Geological Survey is a map of the lower 48 states, color-coded to indicate every section of land to which any Native American people claim aboriginal rights. It should come as no surprise that roughly half that map is colored in. Generations ago, white men--armed with big guns and a lust for property--took Indian land nearly at will because they felt it was their manifest destiny.

In 1946, the year that map was drawn, Congress passed the Indian Claims Commission Act, in order to deal with land claims by indigenous tribes. It specified that tribes must be compensated monetarily, rather than with land, for their ancestors' losses.

Now the federal government is attempting to solve a land dispute--not between a tribe and the government but between two tribes--by ceding National Forest land to one of the tribes. The government's proposal may set a precedent that threatens the future of the U.S. Forest Service. If effected, it will only perpetuate the conflict between the tribes.

The dispute is between the Navajos, the nation's largest Indian tribe, and the Hopis, whose reservation in northeastern Arizona is surrounded on all sides by Navajo land. Some 1,600 Navajos live on property that Congress ruled in 1974 belongs to the Hopis. Those Navajos maintain that the government's attempt to relocate them violates their constitutional right to practice their religion, which they say ties them to that land.

The government's late 1992 proposal gives a 75-year lease to some but not all of the Navajo resistors. To compensate the Hopis for their loss of use of the property, the agreement pays the Hopi Tribe $15 million of federal funds and cedes it roughly half a million acres of state, federal, and private land in Arizona. An additional 35,000 acres would be ceded to the Navajo Nation. It is an agreement in principle, subject to ratification by the recently elected 103rd Congress.

For 17 months, beginning in June 1991, the Departments of Justice and the Interior had negotiated in secret with representatives from both tribes. The Forest Service, the state of Arizona, and the American public were kept out of the loop. Finally, on Friday the 13th of last November, the Forest Service learned it stood to lose 200,000 acres of the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests, much of it heavily wooded land on the northern slope of the popular San Francisco Peaks.

The Forest Service had a few days to report its views on the proposal to Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan, before official approval by the Bush Administration. On November 16, Forest Service Chief F. Dale Robertson sent a memo to Madigan opposing the deal. Madigan went ahead and signed the agreement, as did outbound Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan. In a statement released November 25, Lujan said, "We cannot pass up this once-in-a-century opportunity to settle this bitter dispute."

National Forest lands have been awarded to Native Americans in the past. Some of these cases corrected land-survey errors or connected isolated Indian lands to reservations; other cases pertained to uniquely religious areas. Though the Forest Service, as a branch of the Department of Agriculture, officially approves of this agreement, many persons within and outside the agency think it doesn't make sense. As Robertson's dissenting memo made clear, this "would be the first time that National Forest System lands were conveyed to Indians in settlement of claims unrelated to the lands so conveyed."

Several people interviewed for this report characterized the proposed land transfer similarly: It is as if two landowners in upstate New York had a property dispute. One party, not wanting to give up an inch of its own claim but wanting the other party off its back, has a brainstorm: "I want these 20 acres. Let me have them, and I'll cede you 50 acres of Central Park." Recognizing the value of real estate in New York City, the second party agrees.

Robertson's memo, which was leaked, points out that since 1974 the federal government has already spent more than $350 million relocating Navajos and Hopis across partition lines. Says Congressman Bruce Vento (D-MN): "The public should ask what it has received thus far for that money. This |new settlement~ sends a message to other tribes that it pays to be intractable."

"This could open the door to the dismantling of the whole Forest System," maintains a Vento staffer.

If one feels that National Forest land should in some cases be ceded to Native Americans, there are better examples than this one. South Dakota's Black Hills were once part of the Sioux reservation. After gold was discovered there in 1874, white settlers poured in and the federal government expropriated the land. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the government to pay eight Sioux tribes $122.5 million for land it took illegally from their ancestors more than a century before. The tribes refused the cash payment, and to this day seek their return to what is now Black Hills National Forest.

The 200,000 acres of Coconino and Kaibab National Forests are not connected to the Hopi reservation. They will be, though, if Congress authorizes the proposal, because the Hopis would receive a corridor through the Navajo reservation linking the lands.

Because the Navajo Nation currently has grazing permits on part of the forest land, and because private ranch land is mixed with it, the area is referred to in the agreement as the C.O. Bar, Espil, and Hart Ranches.

The C.O. Bar/Espil section lies at elevations of 6,000 to 9,000 feet. It is partly Kaibab National Forest, partly Coconino, and partly a checkerboard of state and private lands. About half of the National Forest in this section is pinyon-juniper timberland, 50,000 acres of which is suitable for fuelwood harvest, with some grasslands in between. The other half of C.O. Bar/Espil is aspen, ponderosa pine, and mixed species, with some mountain meadows. Thousands of local residents and tourists visit the aspens annually. The area includes the Nordic Ski Center, which provides groomed trails for nearly 10,000 cross-country skiers. Mining claims, for which no valuation has yet been made, dot the region. So do hunting areas and camp-grounds.

The Hart Ranch section of the agreement covers 35,000 acres of Coconino National Forest, containing Amhurst Lake, parts of Upper Lake Mary and Mormon Lake, and five wetlands comprising 250 acres. About two-fifths of the Hart region is ponderosa pine forest. The rest is a mixture of pinyon-juniper forest and grasslands.

Robertson's memo said in part: "The proposal involves land encompassing the entire northern slopes of the San Francisco Peaks and the Kachina Wilderness, where public use and access would be eliminated or sharply curtailed."

The proximity of Kaibab and Coconino to Flagstaff, northern Arizona's largest city, makes the lands suitable for recreation or as possible subdivision sites, marking their value from several hundred to several thousand dollars per acre. When timber and other natural resources are priced, the Forest Service believes the value of the 200,000 acres to be in excess of $60 million. And yet the Justice Department has estimated the government's potential liability in the land dispute to be only $30 million.

News of the proposal immediately created a public outcry in Arizona. In a state that gained notoriety for its resistance to a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, much of that protest has been deemed racist. But as Rob Smith of the Sierra Club says, "It isn't the Indian tribes we fear. It's the policy of avoiding paying our bills and instead mortgaging our future by giving away land that should be held in the public trust."

The agreement would set a potentially cancerous precedent for the Forest Service, putting into land-bank status the 191 million acres of forest it manages. Dangerous also is the fallacy that the proposal solves the Hopi-Navajo dispute. As residents on both reservations study its terms, the number of dissidents grows.

"This is tantamount to the sale and exchange of land," says Albuquerque attorney Frances Jue, hired by a handful of tribal villages called the Second Mesa Hopis, which felt left out of the negotiations. Jue says giving the Navajo squatters 75-year leases to their settlements simply postpones the problem.

Actually, many Navajos agree. A council resolution maintains that the 1974 partition lines were arbitrarily drawn. Having lived under squalid conditions on the disputed land for years, the resistors are reluctant to embrace the lease concept. And Patterson Joe, an attorney for the Navajo Nation, warns that the agreement allows leases only for the Navajo families who have lived year-round in the same dwellings.

Hopi Tribal Council Treasurer Wilma Himel, a First Mesa resident, says, "I've camped on that forest land, and it's beautiful--lots of aspen and ponderosa. But what are the economic gains to the Hopi if we get all that land? People like me would have to travel 150 miles to benefit. My position is, let's take away the carrot and analyze what this would do to us. The lease is for 75 years--minimum. And the Hopi have agreed to provide the Navajo running water, electricity, roads, sewers. There are Hopi people who don't have this themselves."

Himel, one of about 30 Hopis allowed to attend meetings kept secret from the public for 17 months, continues: "The number-one reason I'm opposed to this is that the proposal was rushed through with a non-representative forum. I never felt we needed to go outside rather than work from within. At a meeting last September, |U.S. Magistrate Judge Harry R.~ McCue and |Hopi Chairman Vernon~ Masayesva were taking questions. I wanted to see a map of the lands involved--not what we were getting, but what we were losing. I asked how many acres the Navajos occupied, where they were, how many families lived there, and I wanted to know what other areas were available. I was not given direct answers. There was insufficient information available to me, not to mention to the 8,000 Hopis who couldn't attend."

"A hundred years ago, nobody told the Navajos where the lines were," points out Tony Skrelunas of Big Mountain. "Navajos traditionally were sheepherders. They needed a lot of land--a spread for summer grazing, another for growing corn. You know, a lot of the older people, Navajo and Hopi, will tell you there is no dispute. There are a lot of mixed marriages."

Asked which tribe he belonged to, Skrelunas replied, "Well, Navajo. And my wife is Hopi. But you have to understand what 'Navajo' means. We're taught the Navajos are a mixture of different tribes, including, in some cases, Hopi. It's mainly the younger people who say the Hopis are this or the Navajos are that. That's dangerous. We live right next to each other--sometimes in the same home--and we all work together."

Navajos first appeared in the Southwest long before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century. Hopis established the village of Oraibi, one of the oldest continuously occupied towns in the nation, about 800 years ago. In December 1882, President Chester Arthur created a reservation of 2.4 million acres in northeastern Arizona for the Hopi "and such other Indians as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon." The "other Indians" were some 400 Navajos living on that land. Over the decades, the Navajos grew in number and, as sheepherders, spread across the land. The Hopis, a Pueblo Indian tribe, concentrated in villages near the reservation's center.

In 1962, a federal panel ruled that Hopis and Navajos jointly owned 1.8 million acres (three-quarters) of the reservation created by President Arthur's 1882 order. Twelve years later, Congress partitioned that land, ordering Hopis to one side of the line and Navajos to the other.

The government's newest solution to the dispute makes Bob Wolf, a forest economist now retired from the Congressional Research Service, wax nostalgic: "I remember in about 1950 there was a blizzard in Arizona, which isolated some Navajos. The Air Force flew in food and dropped it for them. One of the bundles hit a Navajo woman and killed her. To me this was symbolic of the government's relationship with the Indians--whenever we try to help them, we kill them."

But why are the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests, public lands the public uses, being ceded to a group of private citizens who don't live particularly close to them?

One source inside the Forest Service, speaking privately, says, "I assume they were told, 'We'll give you what you want. What do you want?' And they said, 'The most valuable lands in the state.'"

Under the National Forest Management Act of 1976, every National Forest must have a land-management plan. The process of creating a plan involves the public from day one. For each forest, an interdisciplinary team representing all the forest's resources--water, wildlife, timber, you name it--is appointed to develop the plan. The forest supervisor holds public meetings, and private citizens are encouraged to attend and make suggestions or objections. Later, when a preliminary draft is published along with an environmental impact statement, people who feel their wishes weren't met are invited to express them again, this time in writing. The plan is then revised for publication, and the regional forester signs off on it. Even then, objections can be brought before the Secretary of Agriculture.

Ray Housley, former deputy chief of the Forest Service, calls the process, which can take five or 15 years, "the ultimate act of public involvement." In spite of the time and energy devoted to each plan, these are living systems. Each must be reviewed periodically.

The Forest Service was not a party to the 17 months of secret negotiations that remove 200,000 acres of National Forest from the public trust. Once the agency learned of the deal, it wasn't afforded the opportunity to present it to the public, as it once presented land management plans for the Coconino and Kaibab. The settlement gives private citizens land the public requested to be used in clear and specific ways. This undercuts the Forest Service's relationship with the public it serves. At a time when new Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt claims the Forest Service is broken and needs fixing, we have a glaring example of the agency not being allowed to do its job.

Michael Hopps, who worked three years as a researcher for National Geographic magazine, has written on politics and the environment for various publications.


Boundary of Proposed Land Deal

Some 1,600 Navajos claim land they currently occcupy on the Hopi reservation.

A November 1992 agreement would allow many of the Navajo occupants to rent that land from the Hopis. The federal government would pay the Hopi Tribe $15 million and cede it roughly half a million acres referred to as the C.O. Bar, Espil, and Hart ranches--including 200,000 acres of the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests.

The agreement must be ratified by Congress.
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Title Annotation:Lookout; federal government's proposal to award forest land to settle a Navajo-Hopi land dispute
Author:Hopps, Michael W.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Lending a hand in Dade.
Next Article:How nature really works.

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