After 17 years of negotiating, the Tonto Apache Tribe is getting back a small portion of its traditional lands in the hopes of providing additional affordable housing for tribal members.
On March 7, representatives of the tribe and the United States Forest Service signed an agreement exchanging 439 acres of land in the Tonto, Coconino, Prescott and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests in return for 273 acres of ancestral land to consolidate with its 85-acre reservation near Payson.
"It has taken a long time to achieve this land exchange, but we did it, and we believe it was done in the right way. It will be a benefit to everyone. It is truly a win-win," said Tribal Chairman Ivan Smith.
The tribe's intent is to use the land to build 22 new affordable homes for tribal members who have had to seek housing off the reservation.
"The additional land comes as a welcome relief to the overcrowded housing that the tribe is experiencing on the reservation, where, in many instances, three or four generations have been living in one house," said Jerry Holland, tribal spokesman.
At the urging of the Forest Service, the Tonto Apache Tribe bought four properties from private landowners more than 10 years ago, protecting them in their natural state until the land exchange could be finalized.
Among those properties one is near Payson and is one of two prehistoric peat bogs in the state.
Another property, near Camp Verde, has an extensive riparian area with the Verde River running through it, said Holland.
He said the tribe and the Town of Payson worked together to acquire the necessary water for the 22 new homes.
Holland said the tribe has also implemented a strong water conservation code, which works hand-in-hand with Payson's.
"In addition, the tribe intends to treat the wastewater generated by the new houses with its water treatment plant, which will produce A+, or high quality, effluent," he added.