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House approves Eastern Cherokee land swap

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WASHINGTON - The House on Sept. 23 voted 288 to 127 to allow the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to exchange land with the National Park Service for purposes of building three tribal schools.

If the bill becomes law, the tribe would receive 143 acres, known as the Ravensford tract, near the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The NPS would receive a lesser valued, 218-acre parcel, known as the Yellow Face tract - cliff land that lies along the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The land exchange is opposed by at least two environmental groups: the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club. As part of its suggested points for opposition letters, the Sierra Club says developing the Ravensford tract would spoil the beautiful vistas seen upon entering the park, and the school complex would add light and noise pollution within the park, as well as traffic congestion at its North Carolina entrance.

The National Parks Conservation Association hired an appraisal firm that valued the Ravensford land at more than $3.5 million. The NPCA said swapping it with the Yellow Face acreage - worth less than a million dollars - violates the Land and Water Conservation Act, which says land exchanges must be of approximate equal value.

The NPS and the tribe started three years ago to prepare a draft environmental impact statement. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., permits finalizing the land swap without the environmental review.

An Interior Department lawyer this summer told the House Resources Committee that the Department supports the legislation.

Michael Olsen said the tribe has spent more than 20 years looking for flat land on which to build a new school, and the NPS and the tribe would agree upon standards of construction that would minimize any adverse impacts to natural or cultural resources.

"The development of the tract would be restricted to road and utility corridor, and an educational campus and support infrastructure," Olsen said. "The legislation simply authorizes a land exchange for a site for a school."

The NPCA says the tribe has been trying to get the Ravensford tract since 1972, when it was hoping to build a golf course there.

A recent Washington Post article characterizes the land exchange issue as a masterful example of Republican partisanship, skewering Democrats between environmentalists on one side and Native Americans on the other.

The legislation goes to the Senate for consideration.