Tom Hannagan, Friends of Ironwood Forest board president, walks through Ironwood Forest National Monument on Jan. 31, 2023, in Tucson. (Photos by Evelyn Nielsen/Cronkite News)
Conservation groups, highway advocates square off on proposed Interstate 11
Before Interstate 10 was built, the Tohono O’odham Nation was relatively removed from the rest of southern Arizona.
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But in the 1960s, construction on the cross-country highway skirted the edge of the reservation. According to one of the tribe’s elected leaders, it didn’t just bring noise and air pollution, it encouraged development around the once-quiet community.
Austin Nuñez has been chairman for the Tohono O’odham Nation’s San Xavier District since 1987, or as he says, “a few years.”
Nuñez said when he was a child, downtown Tucson seemed far off in the distance, but that’s no longer the case.
“I mean, it’s right there, we’re just adjacent to the city of Tucson boundaries,” said Nuñez, whose district includes the historic San Xavier del Bac Mission.
As neighborhoods around the reservation expanded, there were more and more trespassers. One I-10 exit within the reservation led to nowhere.
“People would get off there and trespass on the desert and they’d sometimes take cactus or wood and we’d have to let them know that that was not allowed,” Nuñez said.
Eventually, Tohono O’odham leaders worked with the Arizona Department of Transportation to close the exit so travelers would be unable to access the reservation from the interstate.
Now, members of the Tohono O’odham feel threatened by another federal highway, this one a north-south interstate that would be built adjacent to their community.
For the past decade, the Federal Highway Administration has been working on a plan to extend Interstate 11, which runs for 22 miles in Nevada and concurrently with U.S. Route 93 between Henderson, Nevada, and the Arizona state line. A proposed 280-mile extension from Wickenburg to Nogales would skirt the Tohono O’odham community.
Nuñez said the original plan called for I-11 to cut through a corner of the reservation.
“We told them ‘no,’ we didn’t agree with that,” he said. “They should keep that corridor as far away from us as possible.”
Even though the proposed path doesn’t go directly through Tohono O’odham land, Nuñez said it’s still a problem.
“We’re being intruded on,” he said. “There should be other alternatives that could be looked at that wouldn’t (include) construction” so close to tribal lands.
In addition to nearby I-10, a major electrical transmission corridor and natural gas line run through the Tohono O’odham Nation.