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Fresh look at Kitt Peak lease proposed

ANNE T. DENOGEAN Citizen Staff Writer

Forty years after a perpetual lease was signed, a Tohono O’odham official says it’s time to renegotiate the contract that allows Kitt Peak National Observatory on tribal land.

Frances Francisco, chairwoman of the Schuk Toak district, which includes Kitt Peak, said dissatisfaction has existed for some time.

”It’s just that we’ve never really sat down to discuss the lease and just start reviewing it. We haven’t really benefited anything from the observatory,” said Francisco, who said the issues are money and opportunity for tribal members.

Richard Green, director of Kitt Peak, called the situation ”a non-story” and said concerns would be better addressed through means other than changing the contract.

Francisco said a tribal attorney is reviewing the lease and will report to the district council in about a month.

The lease between the Tohono O’odham and the National Science Foundation, signed Oct. 3, 1958, allows the foundation to use the land indefinitely for science and science-related purposes, Green said.

It was unclear how much annual rent is paid. An assistant attorney general for the tribe declined comment, except to say a previously published amount – $11,000 each year – repeated by Francisco is wrong. Green also could not provide the figure.

The lease includes a 200-acre scientific preserve on which the NSF can build observatories, of which there are about a dozen, and a 2,200-acre buffer zone.

Other aspects of the lease include preferential treatment for qualified Tohono O’odham who are job candidates and the sale of Tohono O’odham arts and crafts in the Kitt Peak gift shop.

Green speculates that the lease is an issue just for Francisco and the Schuk Toak district, not the entire O’odham Nation.

”The only person that has said repeatedly that we want to renegotiate the contract is Frances,” Green said. ”I don’t know what the nation’s position is.”

The Tucson Citizen’s attempts to speak with tribal Chairman Edward Manuel over several weeks were unsuccessful.

”We are making a good-faith effort to create opportunities for them and to enable them to create more opportunities for themselves,” Green said.

Francisco said the land should be reappraised to determine if the rent is adequate.

And she said Kitt Peak should to do more to provide jobs for the tribe and schooling for the tribe’s children.

”My focus is that they open the opportunities, especially in our schools,” she said.

Francisco’s hope is that the observatory, through greater participation in the schools, will inspire Tohono O’odham youngsters to reach for the stars.

”Someday, I would like to see an O’odham astronomer or an O’odham person taking over one of the top positions at Kitt Peak,” she said.

Green said the observatory is trying to reach out, citing an effort to bring docents into tribal schools and a recent Tohono O’odham family night at Kitt Peak.

Tohono O’odham youths also have attended beginning astronomy camps, their tuition paid through a UA/NASA Space Grant Program. Tom Gehrels, founder of the Spacewatch survey on Kitt Peak, recruited in the reservation schools to interest teens in astronomy.

At least one reservation teacher also participates in Project Astro, a program that partners a teacher with an astronomer, said Suzanne Jacoby, Kitt Peak education officer. The teachers attend a two-day workshop on instructing science, and the astronomers commit to visit the class at least four times during the year.

And, in 1996 and 1997, a NASA grant to the Tucson-based National Optical Astronomy Observatory – Kitt Peak’s mother agency – was used to train teachers to teach hands-on science and incorporate the findings from the Galileo spacecraft in Sells middle schools.

”There’s always more we can do, but we are doing something,” Green said.

On the job front, facilities manager John Dunlop said seven Tohono O’odham members are full-time employees, and three tribal members are trainees, hired under an internship program set up about three years ago. That’s 18 percent of the base staff.

The positions range from cook’s helper to lead person on the general services crew. Asked for a salary range, Dunlop said he does not reveal salaries.

Dunlop said the Tribal Employment Rights Office is notified of every job opening so that it can be advertised, he said.

Green said if the tribe wants to make more money, it has other options to achieve that goal besides altering the lease.

Additional revenue for both the tribe and NSF could come from allowing the filming of the mountain and the observatories as a backdrop for commercial use, Green said.

”That wasn’t foreseen at the time of the lease,” he said.

It’s uncertain whether the tribe would agree to such endeavors.

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