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Restoring nature: The return of 1,000 acres to Onondaga Nation

The return of 1,000 acres to Onondaga Nation

The historic decisions on the acquired land will restore environmental and cultural landscapes in Onondaga County.

The purple and white flag that represents the Onondaga Nation community in Central New York
Greta Stuckey

The evening of Feb. 12 marked the end of the public commentary period set up by the Trustees of Onondaga Lake, regarding a restoration plan involving the Onondaga Nation. The Trustees – the U.S. Department of the Interior, New York State, and several Indigenous nations – established the Restoration Plan and Environmental Enhancement (RP/EA) in 2017 in response to pollution by Honeywell Inc.  

Multiple sources have cited the century-long mining of soda ash (sodium carbonate) as the source of Honeywell’s pollution. Numerous toxic chemicals, including mercury, were released into Onondaga Lake and surrounding areas for years, endangering both residents and the environment. 

This winter marks nearly two years since the return of 1,023 acres in the Tully Valley to the Onondaga Nation, in agreement with the federal government and New York State.  

The acres include tributaries and pristine headwaters central to Onondaga Lake, allowing for the restoration of natural and cultural landscapes. Climate Justice is incorporating racial, social, and environmental issues into the climate crisis, as defined by the University of California

In January, the Trustees amended the RP/EA, agreeing the Onondaga Nation would get full control of hunting and fishing on the outlined property, according to Neil Patterson, Executive Director for the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at SUNY-ESF. The amendment also outlined restoration goals. 

Legal processes and years of research in anticipation of the return now culminate in restoration projects on the land.  

SUNY-ESF students working on their masters’ thesis looked at plant communities on the property, which evolved into multiple specific research areas. The Center, along with students, is assisting the Onondaga Nation with Brook trout restoration on the property, Patterson explained.  

Multiple students also did research this past summer, and several mapped the property. This includes the potential and agricultural history of the property, with careful attention to the hydrography within the 1,000 acres, Patterson said. 

Brook trout (“Brookies”) and Black Ash trees are two projects of cultural and environmental importance affected by Honeywell’s pollution. The Black Ash tree is said to be extremely valuable to the Onondaga Nation for its cultural and utilitarian significance in basket weaving. The trees were destroyed by the non-native emerald ash borer (an invasive Asian beetle species), water pollution and the rise of water tables in wetlands, stated Colin Beier, associate professor and forest ecologist at SUNY-ESF.  

Beier, who has worked with the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment for about a decade, emphasized his support in returning the land to the Onondaga Nation for restoration efforts.  

“I think that there’s a lot of wisdom and a lot of value in us getting back to something more sustainable,” Beier said.  

Catherine Landis, Science Advisor for the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment gave more insight into the center’s current involvement.   

“We’ve also had days where we go out with people from the Nation and you know kind of learn from them, so it’s kind of a joint project,” Landis said.   

A meeting on Feb. 5 was established to see further developments take place, according to Joe Heath, Onondaga Nation General Counsel who pioneers the legal action for the Nation. Additionally, the Mohawks, in collaboration with ESF, started developing a resistant strain of the Black Ash tree. The Onondaga Nation hopes to set seedlings out this spring, according to Heath.  

Although Heath is not a member of the Onondaga Nation, he is closely connected with the community and has gone out with the Onondagas to survey the returned land.  

“It’s just so refreshing to see them interact with their land and find this plant here that they haven’t been able to find for their medicinal reasons,” Heath said.  

Heath described the ongoing reintroduction of Brook trout as a means to re-establish a clean source of fish for the Onondaga people, after the Department of Environmental Conservation stopped stocking the outcompeting Brown trout. He is also hopeful that Chittenango ovate amber snail eggs – generated in a lab and translocated next to waterfalls within the returned acres last July – will hatch and preserve the species this year. 

Those involved said there is still justice to be sought, but the return and restoration of these 1,023 acres is proving to be a significant step in the right direction.