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12:23 PM Sun, Dec. 16th

National forest acreage could go to Arizona under land swap

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

FLAGSTAFF — Thousands of acres of national forest land near Flagstaff could be transferred to the state under a proposed exchange as part of an effort to meet a federal commitment to the Hopi Tribe.

In exchange for the federal land, the state would provide large tracts of land elsewhere in northern Arizona to the Hopi Tribe under a 1996 agreement approved by Congress to resolve a long-festering dispute with the Navajo Nation.

The Flagstaff-area property includes acreage west of Walnut Canyon, and land near the Forest Highlands development.

The office of Sen. John McCain and the Arizona State Land Department began preliminary discussions about an exchange at the request of the tribe last year.

McCain’s office then began exploring possibilities of transferring the tribe nearly 150,000 acres east of Flagstaff and south of Interstate 40. The federal government already holds land parcels in this area in trust for the tribe, which was promised the land in the 1996 settlement.

In a letter to McCain in September, former tribal chairman Herman Honanie urged the senator to find a solution to fulfill the government’s side of the deal.

“The Hopi Tribe’s best chance to help improve and diversify our economy is through the settlement lands that we were promised,” Honanie wrote.

The state department identified 83,000 acres of federal land that would have equivalent value to the state land, with 9,400 acres in the Coconino National Forest.

The state selected federal lands that are not under a special designation and would “have some synergy with holdings in the trust already,” said Lisa Atkins, the land department’s commissioner.

In a written statement, McCain spokeswoman Julie Tarallo said the senator will collect input from local communities before a proposal moves forward.

The exchange would require approval by Congress.