A legal settlement will return over 1,000 acres of ancestral land to the Onondaga Nation, an Indigenous group settled in Upstate New York. The remitted property encompasses the region known as the Tully Valley and includes Onondaga Creek, 45 acres of wetland and floodplains, in addition to approximately 980 acres of forested land and fields.
The agreement is part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) Program, operated by the Department Of Interior (DOI), which manages damage to natural resources following environmental disasters, such as oil spills. According to a statement published by the DOI it is “one of the largest returns of land to an Indigenous nation by a state.” A 2021 report found that Indigenous groups have lost 99 percent of their native land.
This development follows a $26 million natural resource damage claim settlement from March 2018 between Honeywell International Inc. and Onondaga County, New York, concerning land and natural resource restoration projects at the Onondaga Lake Superfund Site in Onondaga County. Honeywell, a technology company, was accused of contaminating the Onondaga Lake and surrounding wetlands with mercury and other hazardous substances which are byproducts of its manufacturing facilities. Under this 2018 agreement, the company is required to “operate, repair, maintain, and monitor” restoration projects on the land for a 25-year period.
This latest resolution, directed by Natural Resource Trustees from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), is a continuation of the 2018 deal, under which Honeywell will be expected to carry out 18 restoration projects and also transfer the “title and full ownership” of its land back to the region’s original inhabitants, the Onondaga people. Restoration projects include preserving hundreds of acres of grassland and wetlands, constructing a public boat ramp along the Seneca River, promoting fishing opportunities in Onondaga Lake, and completing trail extensions.
“It is with great joy that the Onondaga Nation welcomes the return of the first substantial acreage of its ancestral homelands,” Onondaga Nation Chief Tadodaho Sidney Hill said in a statement published by the DOI. “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 settlement also includes a conservation easement with the DEC which bans commercial development and will allow for “compatible” recreational and educational uses on the returned land, namely granting public access to Fellow Falls, a natural feature with ravines and waterfalls. A Management Plan developed by Onondaga Nation and the Trustees will dictate future public uses and the Indigenous group will work to re-establish “culturally and ecologically significant” vegetation on the land.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul commented on the landmark settlement: “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.”