Land Exchange: We Cannot Stay Neutral Forever

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At the Sept. 21 Payson town council meeting, our town leaders voted to stand back for the moment and stay impartial on a pending federal land exchange with the Tonto Apaches.

In 2001, the Tonto Apache Tribe applied to the Forest Service to exchange 405 acres of private land for 293 acres of forest land adjacent to the reservation.

In 2004, the tribe requested that the land be transferred into trust, making it sovereign land.

The tribe offered reassurances to the Payson town council that it would work with the town on water issues.

Two years later, the land exchange is still in the works and the question of whether that land will be in trust is still on the table.

According to a Sept. 1 letter sent to the Payson town council by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Tonto Apaches have applied for the transfer of the 293 acres to trust status. BIA asked the council to address any concerns.

The council, at its Sept. 21 meeting, thanked the tribe for keeping the lines of communication open, and voted to stay neutral for the time being.

The tribe is both our neighbor and a part of our community. Our relationship with the tribe must be a good one, and this decision has the potential to become a political mine field.

If the property is not placed in trust, the tribe will be landowners but the acreage will still remain within the Payson town boundaries. If it is put in trust, the tribe will have full control of the land and will not have to go through Payson's planning and zoning requirements for new construction on what will be prime commercial property at the entrance of our town.

We commend the council's decision to sit back and wait for the land exchange to occur. Sept. 21 was not the moment to take a stand.

But when the land exchange does occur, the Payson town council can no longer stay neutral.

It could be years before this happens. When it does, our leaders will face a careful balancing act.

At that moment, the council must represent Payson in its negotiations.

The decision to put this land in trust should not be made quickly or blindly, and any agreements that involve the highway, water and retail developments should be well documented and benefit both Payson and the tribe.

Once all the facts are known, we can make an informed decision -- as a council and as a community.

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