1,000 acres of forest to be returned to Onondaga Nation in historic lake cleanup deal
Syracuse, NY – Centuries after losing nearly all of their land to New York State, the Onondaga Nation will see the return of a 1,000-acre slice of their original 2.5 million acres.
Onondaga and U.S. officials announced today that the nation will receive two heavily forested parcels, one at the headwaters of Onondaga Creek, considered sacred by the nation.
Tully’s land is now owned by Honeywell, the company responsible for cleaning up Onondaga Lake and restoring land and waterways in the area after decades of pollution.
It is one of the largest land transfers made to an Indian nation in the United States, officials said, and the first time land has been returned directly to a New York tribe.
“This return is a monumental thing that happened to us,” said Onondaga Nation member Jeanne Shenandoah. “This return of this acreage demands a massive celebration, a celebration that we have finally found someone who will listen to our words and understand us and understand our culture and our way of life and the historical things that have happened to us.”
The terrain, made up largely of woods and wetlands, will remain wild. Nation’s attorney Joe Heath said the highest priority would be to help clean up Onondaga Creek, which runs through the country, for native speckled trout.
Honeywell, the company responsible for polluting and cleaning up Onondaga Lake, will turn over the land to the Onondaga as part of the company’s settlement with the state to clean up the lake.
“This historic agreement represents a unique opportunity to return traditional lands to Indigenous peoples to steward for the benefit of their community,” Home Office Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press release. “We look forward to leveraging the expertise and Indigenous knowledge of the Onondaga Nation to help manage the region’s valuable wildlife and habitat.
However, the case is far from over. Many details have yet to be ironed out, including potential sticking points such as who will pay for restoration work, how much public access the nation will have to allow, and even whether the nation will pay property taxes.
And the Onondaga were promised land before they ever got it.
In 2011, the Onondaga County Legislature agreed to give the nation a 40-acre parcel on the southeast shore of the lake called Murphy’s Island. The county reneged on that promise after an environmental survey found widespread contamination that would require costly cleanup.
Instead, the county is building a bike path there.
The Tully land will also come with a conservation easement, a legal agreement that will limit development and emphasize environmental protection.
The nation plans to preserve the “relatively pristine” land, Heath said. It consists of 980 acres of forest, 45 acres of wetlands and floodplains, and at least two waterfalls.
Heath said the land includes the headwaters of several tributaries of Onondaga Creek, which the tribe has fished for centuries for native speckled trout.
“It is a very important interest for the nation to be able to restore, protect and improve this indigenous population,” he said.
The exact boundaries of the land were still being negotiated this week, but it will consist of two parcels: one on the corner of Nichols Road and Route 11, and a larger parcel to the south, straddling Tully Farms Road mostly north of Solvay Road.
Heath and DEC State Commissioner Basil Seggos said more land may be transferred to Onondaga in the future, but there are no specific plans to do so.
“We will of course be looking at other packages as they become available and there is a clear mechanism to make this transfer,” Seggos said in an interview with Syracuse.com.
The land transfer is part of a 2018 agreement between the state, Honeywell and the Interior Department’s US Fish and Wildlife Service that goes beyond the decades-long lake cleanup. This agreement outlines 18 projects for Honeywell to complete to restore and make accessible Onondaga Lake and surrounding areas.
One of those steps is this land transfer. The transfer could take up to 10 months; the agreement sets March as the deadline.
Before that, the land will be inventoried by the nation, the DEC, and researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry to list all the land and the plants and animals that live there. Once that’s done, Heath said, the nation will come up with a plan for how the land will be used.
“It’s a beautiful area,” said Sid Hill, a Tadodaho Nation, or spiritual leader. “It’s a nice little stream. There’s fishing there, there’s wildlife there, and there’s medicine there.
The Onondaga have traditionally hunted and fished on their lands and used native plants as medicine.
The lands of Tully will belong entirely to the Onondaga Nation. That’s unlike 13,000 acres in Madison and Oneida counties set aside for the Oneida Indian Nation. This land is owned by the federal government but is reserved for the exclusive use of the Oneida Nation.
The Onondaga Nation will own the land in Tully, although they are not considered sovereign.
And the transfer will come with stipulations set by the state government. The land must be kept mostly wild, and the nation must allow public access.
The transfer is part of the decades-old cleanup of Onondaga Lake. The federal Superfund law that mandated the cleanup of Onondaga Lake and several nearby sites requires polluters to do two things: clean up the toxic mess they left behind and reimburse the community for losses caused by the pollution. This second part, called the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, is what compelled Honeywell to cede the field.
Under the assessment agreement with the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Honeywell was also to complete 17 other projects, including the west side boat launch, wetland restoration, and trails.
On the Tully land, Honeywell agreed in 2018 to build parking lots and pathways before turning the land over to DEC or “a third party.” In other Superfund cases, that third party has often been a nonprofit conservation group.
Honeywell did not construct any of these lots or trails. Seggos said the Onondaga Lake plan gave the state a chance to see environmental restoration and conservation in a new way.
“It was an opportunity to right other wrongs of the past, and by that I mean how the land and the past were taken away from the Onondaga Nation,” Seggos said in an interview with syracuse.com | The Post Standard. “This is an exciting time for our relationship with New York’s Indigenous nations and a significant shift in how we were prepared to view land management.”
Seggos said the land will come with a conservation easement, which will limit construction and focus on protecting waterways, wetlands and animal habitats.
“The land will be expected to be protected under traditional ecological knowledge,” he said. “At the end of the day, we expect the land to be very well managed and cared for.”
Allied Chemical, which was later renamed Honeywell after a merger, owned land in the Tully Valley to extract the salt. The company practiced solution mining: injecting water underground to flush out the salt, which was then piped to chemical plants along the lake to create soda. Mining this salt has led to sinkholes and landslides, Heath said, and created boils of mud that pour silt into Onondaga Creek as it meanders 27 miles to the lake .
The Onondaga land lies upstream of the mud boils, Heath said, and contains no sinkholes or other ecological damage.
The Onondaga Nation, part of the Confederacy of Six Haudenosaunee Tribes that once stretched across the center of present-day New York State. During the 18th and 19th centuries, they signed a number of treaties ceding land to New York State. The Onondaga, along with the Oneida Indian Nation, later said these agreements violated federal law, and the tribes filed land claims in court to reclaim their land.
The Onondaga Nation filed its land claim in federal district court in 2005, alleging that New York illegally obtained approximately 4,000 square miles of land that included nearly all of Syracuse, plus Oswego, Fulton, Watertown, Cortland and Binghamton. .
Just weeks after the lawsuit was filed, the United States Supreme Court issued an 8-1 decision that the Oneida Indian Nation had waited too long to pursue its 250,000-acre claim in Madison and Oneida counties. This decision essentially ended Indian land claims cases in New York.
The return of Tully’s Land is a small but significant step for the Onondaga to have control over what matters most: the land.
“We would like to keep it pristine and pure,” Shenandoah said. “We have our cultural teachings that show us how to live with the land and how to be how to proceed and be grateful and the things we can do.”