CHEROKEE, N.C. – Three million gamblers visit the Cherokee Indian Reservation each year, pumping millions of dollars into the tribe's economy.
And now the tribe wants to spend some of that money on modern new schools, but it is facing opposition from conservationists who say the federal land targeted for the new construction shouldn’t be turned over.
Cherokee leaders say they have little choice, since developable land on the mountainous 56,000-acre reservation has become more scarce. Tribal leaders want the location outside their reservation to be built as a three-school campus to replace aging and overcrowded elementary, middle and high school buildings.
The area in question is a flat, 168-acre parcel of land known as the "Ravensford Tract." Ravensford is located adjacent to the reservation in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In exchange for Ravensford, the tribe is offering the National Park Service 218 acres of mountain terrain located along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. But the uncommon flatness that makes Ravensford so appealing for development also makes the land environmentally unique, according to conservationists.
Scientists at Ravensford have discovered 55 new scientific and archaeological artifacts dating back 9,000 years.
"Any kind of building on this piece of property, whether it's by the Park Service or the Cherokee, is going to have an impact on the resources that are currently protected," said Greg Kidd, associate director of the Southeast regional office of the National Parks Conservation Association.
But Leon Jones, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, argued that not developing the land places a more important resource at stake — people. "I just want to use that property to educate the children of my tribe and ensure the future of this tribe," he said.
The current school buildings in Cherokee are in disrepair. The elementary school, built 40 years ago to accommodate 480 students, is now packed with 700. The overflow crowd attends classes in trailer units. Cherokee leaders also claim the schools' downtown locations place students dangerously close to traffic, which has become increasingly busy as the reservation attracts more tourists.
Despite the growing pains, few residents complain about the gentrification and economic growth that have taken place since the casino opened in November 1997, creating 1,500 jobs and attracting millions of tourists.
But environmentalists complain the tribe would not be looking for land in national parks if it had only curtailed the growth of its commercial interests. And some tribal plans call for the old school properties to be converted into commercial zones once new schools are built elsewhere.
The Cherokee, who have spent more than $1 million on impact studies at Ravensford, claim they can build the new school complex in a way that mitigates damage to environmental and archaeological interests.
But conservationists say the National Park Service would set a dangerous precedent if it trades public land it is supposed to protect for "future generations."
Federal law allows the National Park Service to exchange parcels of land up to 200 acres in size without congressional approval. But such exchanges are rare.
Kidd suggested the Cherokee look for private property instead of attempting to acquire land within a National Park. But tribal leaders insist they have historic claims to the land and deserve special consideration.
"I can only say that it wasn't in the best interests of my people in 1838 when we were told to move to Oklahoma," Jones said.
The Cherokee have sought the Ravensford Tract since 1971. The tribe had proposed building a golf course on the site but was turned down.
The National Park Service had systematically rejected all proposals for development at the Ravensford Tract until 2000. Then Robert Stanton, Park Service director under the Clinton Administration, signed an agreement with Cherokee leaders to "create a framework within which the parties may explore the feasibility of a land exchange involving the Ravensford Tract."
The Park Service is in the process of conducting public hearings and environmental impact studies to determine whether trading land to accommodate one group is in the best interests of a park theoretically owned by everyone.
A final decision is expected by early next year.
Jonathan Serrie joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in April 1999 and currently serves as a correspondent based in the Atlanta bureau.