EPA Expands Indian Reservation Borders
By Rebekah Fitzgerald, CSG Research Associate
State officials are used to having questions about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s implementation of the Clean Air Act. But local and state officials in Wyoming were not prepared to rehash 100-year-old boundaries when the EPA issued its decision to recognize the Wind River Indian Reservation as a separate state under the act.
The EPA’s December decision ignited a firestorm of controversy resulting in Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael filing an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit Feb. 14.
At issue is a longstanding controversy over tribal boundaries established by a 1905 Congressional Act. That Act ceded more than 1 million acres and three Wyoming towns to non-natives. But the recent EPA decision disagrees. The EPA argues the act did not revoke the land’s reservation status and its decision expands the jurisdictional boundaries to include the lands in question.
The EPA action drew immediate criticism from state leaders. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead was not shy in expressing his frustration with the EPA decision.
“This decision goes against 100 years of history, involving over a million acres of land,” Mead said in a prepared statement. “It is not a decision that should come from a regulatory agency. I believe the EPA is in the wrong and I will not honor its decision.”
The state’s reaction surprised the Northern Arapaho Business Council, which wrote a letter to the governor.
“Now that the (Department of the Interior) and EPA have issued their determinations, state officials have changed their tune, claiming to be outraged by the decision and suggesting that the federal government has no say in such matters,” the council said in the letter.
With increasing tensions, both the state and Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes recently sought reprieve through a petition to stay the decision until the courts can decide.
Their petition was granted through a recent EPA letter “due to the unique circumstances” and to allow for “orderly implementation” of the EPA’s pending resolution of the reservation boundary issue. The stay is only applicable to the City of Riverton and remains in effect until the agency reconsiders or a mandate is handed down by the courts.
Both the state and tribes said they were pleased the stay had been granted. Mark Howell, a spokesman for the Northern Arapaho Tribe, told the Billings (Mont.) Gazette, “Now, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the case and we'll move from there.”
While the stay does provide some certainty for local residents and governments, uncomfortable conversations are far from over. The court will require the state, tribes and EPA to participate in mediation, a process many hope will yield positive results and build stronger relationships between the parties moving forward.
This issue is not expected to influence broader Clean Air Act implementation, but it does underscore the difficulty states face with agency communication. The tribes had been working with the EPA since 2008 to gain treatment as state, but local County Commissioner Keja Whiteman told The Ranger newspaper that there had been a breakdown in communication.
“At no point between now and then have the state or county made any effort to sit down with the tribes and discuss these issues,” she said.
But during regular meetings between the EPA, tribal officials, state and local governments over the years on other issues, this topic somehow flew under the radar. Leaders are left questioning how communication should occur to prevent an incident like this from happening again.