Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
A massive land swap approved Friday – following decades of work – will make it easier to bring water and electricity to Navajo Nation families living in northwestern New Mexico, officials said.
The exchange conveys about 71 square miles of state trust land – small parcels scattered across Cibola, McKinley and San Juan counties – to the Navajo Nation.
The State Land Office, in turn, will receive about the same amount of land – in Cibola and Socorro counties, near the Alamo reservation, which is also part of the Navajo Nation. The state will lease the land back to the Navajo Nation.
The deal allows each side to consolidate its land holdings and limit the “checkerboard” jurisdiction of state, federal and tribal lands in rural New Mexico.
“It’s all about getting water and electricity to families that never had it, and also to complete some of the roads we have out there,” Navajo President Russell Begaye said Friday after signing paperwork in Albuquerque.
Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a Libertarian whose term ends next month, said the exchange will make it easier to manage state trust lands while generating the same amount of revenue or more.
“It’s just good for both the nation and the state,” Dunn said. “The state gets consolidation, we will get the same income, and we solve a lot of the checkerboard issues.”
Attempts at a swap, he said, date back at least to then-Land Commissioner Jim Baca, who served from 1983-86 and 1991-93.
Begaye said the complex map of different jurisdictions has made it difficult to secure the legal rights needed to build roads and utilities for Navajo families. In some cases, surveyors made mistakes and people built homes – even two cemeteries – on what was actually state land, he said. In other areas, he said, a paved road will stop abruptly because another government agency’s approval was needed to continue.
Some of the parcels exchanged Friday are near Chaco Canyon, a sacred site with ancient ruins, in the Four Corners area.
“This is a historic area for Navajos,” Begaye said, “so to be able to get these lands back, especially around Chaco, it’s important.”
Dunn said there’s still more work to be done. He estimated there are more than 150 square miles in the area that still ought to be traded.
Dunn said he briefed Land Commissioner-elect Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat, on the exchange this week.
Garcia Richard, a state representative from the Los Alamos area, takes office Jan. 1. The Journal wasn’t immediately able to reach her Friday.
Dunn didn’t seek re-election and steps down Dec. 31.
The land exchanged was worth about $15 million for each side.