Real estate developers go after Indian land near big cities

The land of the Tohono O'Odham is dusty, desert plain, dotted with brown brush. Like much of the land that the United States government gave to the Indians, the 71,000-acre San Xavier Reservation, a few miles south of Tucson, Ariz., was never worth much economically to the generations of impoverished O'Odham living there. But urban growth, like that in Tucson, is making the Indian lands bloom in the eyes of real estate developers, who view reservations near cities as a new frontier in the West. And the white man's proposals to take back the reservations -- temporarily, by lease -- is pitting Indian vs. Indian.

As Tucson has grown, the tiny San Xavier Reservation has metamorphosed into some very hot property, worth millions, that borders the city and has 10 miles of valuable interstate frontage.

Last year, an ambitious and spirited real estate developer, James Rothschild Jr., from Palm Springs, Calif., invested $7 million to prepare a proposal to lease a fraction of San Xavier for 65 years, with an option to renew for another 25. The purpose is to build a residential community for 100,000 non-Indians, complete with swimming pools, gardens, and health clubs. He had his eye on 18,700 acres, less than 1 percent of total O'Odham land holdings in southern Arizona, none of it near the tiny community of San Xavier del Bac where most of the reservation's 826 inhabitants live.

This means O'Odham tribes people who hold allotments of 20 acres stand to make thousands of dollars, maybe much, much more, not to mention income from the jobs Mr. Rothschild has promised. Most of the Indians living on the reservation could take advantage of this. And according to one study -- conducted by the University of Arizona for Rothschild -- the tribe as a whole could make as much as $757 million, plus a possible $806 million in tax revenue, if the proposed residential community is a success.

To Rothschild's dismay, his lease proposal has become one of the most divisive issues the tribe has ever faced. In August, the tribal government of the Tohono O'Odham Nation, headquartered 60 miles away on the larger Papago Reservation, flatly rejected the hopeful developer's latest offer.

Some older tribes people are against leasing in general, since they fear the cultural intrusion from non-Indians living on their land and wonder if the outsiders would really leave their homes when the lease agreement runs out, explains Julie Ramon Pierson. Ms. Pierson is an officer of the Indian group, called the Defenders of O'Odham Land, fighting the Rothschild move.

Other members, like Ms. Pierson, are only against this particular lease, labeling it a ``modern-day land steal'' that did not address questions of water rights, conservation, or legal jurisdiction. The subject is still so controversial that tribal officials have either declined to comment or not returned phone calls.

Still other Indians, like Phil Norris, an O'Odham who lives and works on the San Xavier Reservation, don't quite know what to make of it all. ``I really don't know what it all means, but, well, I guess I think we should just go ahead and lease it,'' he says. ``A lot of folks out here are for leasing,'' says the taciturn Norris. ``The land's just sitting there, and nobody's doing nothing with it anyway.''

But proponents of leasing are organizing to fight a campaign for a new lease proposal, and Rothschild has not given up. ``Leasing land is just a normal way of doing business,'' Rothschild says. ``There's nothing all that special about this.''

The Tohono O'Odham is not the first tribe that has had to decide whether or not to lease its land. Of the 53.4 million acres held in trust by the federal government for Indians, about 7.2 million are leased, the vast majority used as controversial livestock rangeland, explains Frank Hissong, a leasing specialist with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

As of now, only a handful of tribes have been faced with the more lucrative and controversial prospect of commercial-residential development. Although a complex process that must be approved by the US Department of Interior, leasing, Mr. Hissong says, is the easiest way for outside developers to get their hands on Indian land.

So far about 134,000 acres have been leased for some kind of residential use, not all of it commercially developed. And observers say leasing is on the increase in the Southwestern and Western states.

``This is becoming a trend here, especially in reservations in proximity to large urban centers,'' said Randy Morrison of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Phoenix. ``In fact, I'd say it is the wave of the future.''

Already two golf courses, a luxury hotel, and 1,000 residential units in Palm Springs, Calif., stand on land leased from the Agua Caliente tribe, explained Rothschild. Rothschild's Santa Cruz properties alone leases 1,900 acres from the Agua Caliente.

Not all these agreements have had successful endings. In 1969, the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico leased 6,000 acres 50 miles north of Albuquerque to developers who planned an ambitious recreational community.

But unexpectedly steep oil prices sent the project, part of the Great Western Cities program, into disarray and brought on a succession of owners. Great Western Cities was an ambitious project to develop three new cities in the Southwest.

``A few homes were built and the Indians got some money, but not all,'' explained New Mexican BIA officer, Lorraine Lucero. ``Unfortunately, Great Western Cities is now owned by the Hunt family,'' she said. ``That means it's in bankruptcy court in Dallas.''

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