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State News: Gov. Hochul, U.S. Department of Interior, and Onondaga Nation Announce One of the Largest Returns of Land to an Indigenous Nation by Any State

Governor Kathy Hochul, joined by United States Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Onondaga Nation Tadodaho Sidney Hill, today announced a historic agreement as part of the Onondaga Lake Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program that will return more than 1,000 acres of scenic land to the Nation. As Natural Resource Trustees for the settlement with Honeywell International, Inc., the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service signed a resolution that directs Honeywell to transfer the title to more than 1,000 acres of open space in Central New York’s Tully Valley to the Onondaga Nation – one of the largest returns of land by any state to an Indigenous nation. 

“Today is a historic day for New York State, the Biden Administration, and our many partners in respecting and recognizing the Onondaga Nation as the original stewards of these lands and waters,” Governor Hochul said. “This scenic location in the Tully Valley will be owned by the Nation and its people to continue their legacy of conservation that will protect these cultural and ecological resources for the benefit of Nation citizens and all New Yorkers for generations to come.” 

Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said, “This historic agreement represents a unique opportunity to return traditional homelands back to Indigenous people to steward for the benefit of their community. We look forward to drawing upon the Onondaga Nation’s expertise and Indigenous knowledge in helping manage the area’s valuable wildlife and habitat. Consistent with the President’s America the Beautiful initiative, all of us have a role to play in this Administration’s work to ensure our conservation efforts are locally led and support communities’ health and well-being.”

Tadodaho Sidney Hill said, “It is with great joy that the Onondaga Nation welcomes the return of the first substantial acreage of its ancestral homelands. The Nation can now renew its stewardship obligations to restore these lands and waters and to preserve them for the future generations yet to come. The Nation hopes that this cooperative, government-to-government effort will be another step in healing between themselves and all others who live in this region which has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time.”   

The historic agreement is a result of the March 2018 NRDAR settlement between the Trustees and Honeywell International, Inc., and will convey the title of the land owned by Honeywell to the Onondaga Nation to restore and manage the property using Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), historical cultural practices, and sound science. 

The Tully Valley property includes the headwaters of Onondaga Creek, more than 45 acres of wetland and floodplains and approximately 980 acres of forest and successional fields. The cold waters of Onondaga Creek support a small population of brook trout, which may be fully restored with proper stewardship. The wetlands, floodplains, forests, and fields are home to wildlife such as great blue heron, songbirds, waterfowl, hawks, bald eagles, frogs, bats, and other mammals including white-tailed deer. 

The federal-nation-state partnership that led to the return of this property to the Onondaga people will include a conservation easement with DEC. The easement will protect and restore natural areas, including fish and wildlife habitats, and allow compatible outdoor recreational and educational uses, including public access to Fellows Falls. 

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said, “We congratulate the Onondaga Nation, Secretary Haaland, and our many federal, state, and local partners in celebrating the ongoing restoration of Central New York communities from a history of contamination. With today’s announcement, New York State is a national leader, acknowledging the legacy of natural resource protection provided by our Indigenous neighbors and transferring more than 1,000 acres of land to the Onondaga Nation to conserve and steward.” 

Senator Chuck Schumer said, “This historic agreement will return over 1,000 acres of natural landscape to the Onondaga Nation where it rightfully belongs. Once again, the Onondaga people will have access to the headwaters of Onondaga Creek, surrounding forests, and natural landscapes of this scenic part of Central New York.  I applaud Secretary Haaland, Governor Hochul, and the leaders of Onondaga Nation for working together to broker this historic deal and pledge my full support to continue to support the Onondaga people to protect their lands and ensure they have the full resources they need to continue to build a brighter future.”

State Senator Rachel May said, “I welcome this announcement that the headwaters of Onondaga Creek and over 1,000 acres in Tully Valley will be restored to the care of the Onondaga Nation. I have been present many times when members of the Nation talked with great emotion about these lands, about fishing in the crystal clear waters of the creek, and about their fundamental kinship to the land, water, plants animals, and natural processes there. The Nation has never ceased its commitment to caring for the land through the practices of traditional ecological knowledge and active, healing gratitude. I believe this decision will be beneficial to all who live in the area and give thanks to the many parties who came together to reach this agreement.”

Assemblymember Pamela Hunter said, “This historic return of indigenous land to Onondaga Nation is the right thing to do and ensures that these lands will be environmentally preserved for generations to come. I look forward to the restoration of ecosystems as well as the return of sustainable hunting and fishing practices by Nation residents.”   

The Onondaga Nation will develop a Restoration Management Plan, in consultation with the Trustees, to determine the type and extent of recreational and public use that will not interfere with the Nation’s re-establishment of culturally and ecologically significant native vegetation and habitats. 

The funding and implementation of NRDAR projects by the Trustees is a result of the legal settlement with Honeywell following the past release of included mercury and other hazardous substances to Onondaga Lake, its tributaries, and uplands. As part of the Onondaga Lake NRDAR process, the USFWS and DEC assessed contaminant-related injuries to natural resources such as waterfowl and turtles, and quantified the lost use of natural resources to the public, such as fishing. The agencies then solicited restoration project ideas from a wide variety of stakeholders and the Onondaga Nation to identify the types and scale of restoration needed to compensate for those natural resource injuries, as well as projects that could help address cultural losses to the Nation and its citizens. 

Honeywell International is required by the settlement to implement 18 restoration projects, including the Tully Valley land transfer announced today, and pay more than $5 million for the Trustees’ implementation of additional restoration projects in and around the Onondaga Lake Watershed. Projects completed or in the process include 100 acres of grassland restoration; preservation and restoration of an additional 850 acres of habitat within the Onondaga Lake watershed; a public boat ramp along the Seneca River; enhanced habitat and fishing opportunities along the shores of Onondaga Lake and in Ninemile Creek; a public boat ramp along the Seneca River; an extension of the Empire State Trail from Camillus to Harbor Brook; and the transfer of the Honeywell Visitor Center to the State. 

Copies of the Restoration Plan for Onondaga Lake, can be found on the USFWS website. For more information, about the cleanup of Onondaga Lake, visit here

Mark Ziobro
Mark Ziobrohttps://uticaphoenixnet.wpcomstaging.com
Mark is the current Managing Editor for The Utica Phoenix, and a Central New York Native.
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