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House plan would swap land with Tucson schools, Pascua Yaqui tribe

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WASHINGTON – The Pascua Yaqui tribe would get land near its Casino del Sol resort and the Tucson Unified School District would get land for a transit center in a three-way land swap considered by a House subcommittee Tuesday.

Under the bill by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, the Bureau of Land Management would transfer 10 acres to the tribe and the school district would transfer another 10 acres.

“As thanks” for the school district’s land, the tribe would lease a 10-acre parcel to the district near Lawrence Elementary School, a tribal official said Tuesday.

The parcels the tribe wants “are virtually landlocked” and would offer the government little value if sold, but are largely surrounded by tribal land where the Pascua Yaqui are building golf courses for the resort.

“This bill means a great deal to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and its endeavor to improve itself through economic development of its lands,” said tribal Chairman Peter Yucupicio in written testimony to the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

“Being able to add the parcels … to the tribe’s golf course would significantly improve the golf course and its chances for economic viability and success,” he said.

“Even if a developer were to purchase them, their size and location would prohibit almost any potential economic use,” he said. “So the tribe feels that these parcels have little, if any, market value to the United States, but great value to the tribe.”

Under an informal agreement, the tribe would lease 10 acres of land at the other site to the school district for $1 a year for 25 years, Yucupicio said.

Adelita Grijalva, one of the district’s board members, said the leased land would be used for a transportation center. It would not make sense to build the center on the land the district is giving up, since that land is surrounded by a golf course, she said.

“We can build the bus barn in the (parcel) that is ours, but in order to be a good neighbor, it just makes more sense” to swap parcels, said Grijalva, the daughter of the congressman.

Raul Grijalva agreed that the deal makes sense for all the parties.

“More revenue, more good benefits to the tribe, and more revenue to the community, so it is a trade that costs the taxpayers no money,” he said after the hearing. “It’s trust land the government would hold for the tribe, and they can fully develop the casinos. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

The bill proposed by Grijalva bears only partial resemblance to the deal outlined by all the parties Tuesday. Grijalva’s staff said the bill will be amended to reflect the new deal.

A Bureau of Land Management official asked the committee for several amendments, including charging a fair-market value for the land and allowing for more public input into the process.

Michael Nedd, the BLM’s assistant director of minerals and realty management, also asked to streamline the land-transfer process outlined in the bill and alter boundaries so the agency is also not left with two oddly shaped pieces of land that would be tough to manage.

“The department supports the goals of H.R. 4222, but would like to work with the bill’s sponsor on various improvements, including ensuring that the conveyances are subject to full public review and participation,” Nedd said in written testimony.

Grijalva said he expects the bill will face little opposition in the full House. He said he hopes that one of the state’s senators then introduces it in the Senate “so that this tribe, who has been very patient on this issue, can fully develop their resources there and, I think, help southern Arizona as a whole.”