H.R. 1409

June 18, 2003

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 1409, a bill to provide for a federal land exchange for the environmental, educational, and cultural benefit of the American public and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Reservation is located in western North Carolina and is home to 12,500 enrolled members. The Reservation is adjacent to both the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Park) and Blue Ridge Parkway (Parkway), which are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service (NPS). Congress established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on June 15, 1934. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially dedicated the Park on September 2, 1940.

H.R. 1409 would direct the Secretary of the Interior to exchange approximately 143 acres of the Park and Parkway, known as the Ravensford tract, to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (Tribe) for approximately 218 acres of land, known as the Yellow Face tract, to the NPS. The Ravensford tract would be held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the Tribe and the Yellow Face tract would be added to the Parkway.

We have no objection to action by Congress in this matter. On the administrative front, we are moving forward with a process for evaluation of the environmental effects of the proposed exchange and alternatives. House Report 106-646, which accompanied the Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2001 (P.L. 106-291), the House Committee on Appropriations expressed its support of the Tribe's efforts to enter into a land exchange with the NPS for purposes of obtaining land suitable for building a new school complex. The Committee urged "the cooperation of the NPS to ensure the exchange with the Tribe takes place expeditiously." In response, in January 2000 the NPS committed to begin this process and on June 14, 2000, a general agreement was executed between the NPS and the Tribe to identify the resource evaluations and appraisals required to be carried out by law. The NPS held initial scoping meetings in Knoxville (TN), Asheville (NC), and Cherokee (NC) in early 2002. The compilation of the public comments, evaluations and appraisals are contained in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is available for public review from June 13th through August 15th. The Department will update the Committee on the issues raised in this public review.

The Tribe plans to use a portion of the Ravensford tract for the construction of an educational campus, which would replace existing schools that were constructed 40 years ago. The Tribe has been seeking flat land on which to build a new school for over 20 years. The bill's findings point out that the current Cherokee Elementary School was built by the Department of the Interior over 40 years ago with a capacity of 480 students, but now hosts 794 students in dilapidated buildings and mobile classrooms at a dangerous highway intersection in downtown Cherokee, North Carolina.

Under the legislation, the NPS and Tribe would enter into consultations to review the planned construction allowing the NPS and Tribe to develop mutually agreed upon standards for size, impact, and design of construction of the educational facilities in order to minimize or mitigate any adverse impacts on natural or cultural resources. The NPS would also be authorized to enter into cooperative agreements to provide training, management, protection, preservation, and interpretation of the natural and cultural resources on the tract. The development of the tract would be restricted to road and utility corridor, and an educational campus and support infrastructure. No new structures would be constructed on the portion of the tract north of the point where the Big Cove Road crosses the Raven Fork River.

The legislation simply authorizes a land exchange for a site for a school. The Tribe will still have to go through the process necessary for using BIA funds under the school cost share demonstration project or replacement priority. In addition, while the NPS will mutually agree on the standards for size, impact and design, the Tribe will still have to follow BIA requirements with regard to design and planning.

During the 2002 National Tribal Historic Preservation Officers meeting, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was given a tour of the lands proposed in this exchange. The Ravensford Tract is rich in biodiversity and in historical artifacts and Cherokee history. There is evidence that this property has more intact archeological properties that are historically significant to the Cherokee than any place other than a place known as Katooah, which is considered the birthplace of the Cherokee. The Tribe's Historic Preservation Office in consultation with the NPS, the State Historic Preservation Office, and an independent expert peer review panel has developed a cultural resource mitigation plan to ensure the preservation of these properties.

The land exchange contemplated in H.R. 1409 presents an extremely unique situation. The Department does not typically support land exchanges that establish restrictions, such as the ones contained in section 4, on tribal trust land. We understand, however, there was mutual agreement between the tribe and the sponsor to include these provisions in the bill in order to ensure the least amount of impact on the adjoining park property. This concludes my testimony. I would be happy to answer any questions that you may have.