Y-A Nation pursues <br>land trade of its own<br>Tribe, Ruskin both want highway parcels
Standing on historical precedence, the Yavapai-Apache Nation is watching closely as the U.S. Forest Service proceeds with negotiations on a land swap with rancher-developer Fred Ruskin.
Verde District Ranger Tom Bonomo said the Nation has been at the bargaining table for years, but not quite as long as Ruskin, who has said he initiated discussion on his exchange roughly 14 years ago.
Ruskin, who resides in Paradise Valley, is in the process of assembling a land swap in which portions of his family’s Yavapai Ranch south of Seligman will be transferred into federal ownership. The Forest Service says the property, adjacent to the Juniper Mesa Wilderness area, is the largest remaining pine forest on private land in Arizona. The state’s Game and Fish Department considers it critical wildlife habitat. Bonomo said for as long as 50 years his agency has been intent on consolidating the checkerboard parcels in which the Forest Service and Ruskin each owns every other 640-acre section.
Because land values traded must equal land values acquired and what Ruskin is trading is worth more than what will be left within the ranch boundaries when all is said and done, Ruskin is looking to gain other tracts of public lands across Northern Arizona, including a few in Camp Verde.
One of those is six square miles of highway frontage along Interstate 17 and Arizona 260, on which Ruskin plans commercial and residential development. The land includes what is now a dead-end access to I-17 at General Crook Trail and is choice for development, something that has created a frenzy of opposition from Camp Verde residents who want to see it remain open space. Portions of the tract are in town boundaries and are designated as National Forest-public lands on the general plan land-use map. They are zoned for residential use. Ruskin's talks on that tract go back seven years.
The Nation has before the Forest Service a request for a little over 2,500 acres of that same land, a portion of which borders the tribe's Middle Verde Reservation on the east and west sides of the Verde River, which it believes it has long-standing rights to, along with several other tracts in Camp Verde.
Among them are lands adjacent to and across from the Cliff Castle Casino, a parcel along Middle Verde Road west of the old Cowboys and Outlaws theme park, and farther down the road, property on which the tribe's sacred cemetery has existed by way of a special use permit from the Forest Service. A newer tract added to the mix is located north of the cemetery and Middle Verde Road on the west side of Interstate 17. Another strip they desire, as much as 30 acres, is located north of Camp Verde High School off Apache Trail. Some of the land is needed for housing, and the tribe is seeking to use some of it for expansion of the casino's accessory uses like parking, as well as a planned retail development at Arizona 260 and Montezuma Castle Highway.
All things being equal, under federal law, the Nation would have preference over others to acquire those sections, acknowledged Bonomo. But, he said, Ruskin came first. For that reason, during the process of negotiating, Bonomo said the Forest Service suggested the tribe work with Ruskin, which it did. The Nation purchased six sections of Yavapai Ranch to complement other lands it is acquiring that the Forest Service wants, Tribal Chairman Vincent Randall said.
Randall said the Nation has long wanted to recoup land taken from the Indians by the federal government in the 1870s when Vincent Colyer, acting as a peace commissioner under an executive order from Ulysses S. Grant, traveled to Camp Lincoln, the first military post constructed in the Verde Valley. In 1868, the camp's name was changed to Camp Verde and in 1870, the 3rd Cavalry was assigned to the Verde Valley. The renamed site was too small to accommodate the troops so another camp was set up that is now Fort Verde. The old Camp Lincoln, located on the bluffs of the Verde River near what is now Mahan Lane, was abandoned in 1872.
When Colyer arrived, Randall said, the Yavapais and Apaches resided on the Rio Verde Reserve that comprised 10 miles on each side of the Verde River from Camp Verde, 45 miles upriver to Clarkdale. Today, the Yavapai-Apaches are trying to shore up that original land to add to their existing Middle Verde Reservation. In the past few years the tribe has acquired additional parcels, once known as the Tunlii and Cloverleaf ranches, on the west side of the river.
Discussions with the Forest Service for the tribe’s land swap began around 1995 under the tenure of former chairman Ted Smith, said Randall. At that time, the tribe assembled lands for trade and was ready to finalize the exchange when Randall said two bombs were dropped: the Forest Service determined that lands acquired by the tribe for trade were not of equitable value for the lands the Nation wanted to acquire; and a population of the endangered cliff rose was identified on one of the parcels, thereby eliminating it from consideration.
At that point, Randall said, the Nation had to start over and the present proposal is the result.