EPA overrides Congress, hands over town to Indian tribes

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Have you heard the story of the residents of Riverton, Wyo.? One day they were Wyomingans, the next they were members of the Wind River tribes — after the Environmental Protection Agency declared the town part of the Wind River Indian Reservation, undoing a 1905 law passed by Congress and angering state officials.

The surprise decision was made by officials of the EPA, the Department of Interior, and Department of Justice early last month, and has invoked the ire of Gov. Matt Mead, who has vowed not to honor the agency’s decision and is preparing to fight in court.

“My deep concern is about an administrative agency of the federal government altering a state’s boundary and going against over 100 years of history and law,” Mead said in a statement. “This should be a concern to all citizens because, if the EPA can unilaterally take land away from a state, where will it stop?”

The EPA declared that Riverton was part of the Wind River Indian Reservation after granting a “Treatment as a State” application from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. The tribes submit such applications to get funding for air quality monitoring under the Clean Air Act. However, this seemingly innocuous application ended up undoing the tribal boundaries set by a 1905 congressional act.

The EPA granted the tribes’ claim that the Wind River reservation extended over one million acres of land beyond what the 1905 Congressional Act established. By doing this, the agency effectively overruled an act of Congress, state officials charge.

The worry by state officials is that turning Riverton, a town of over 10,000 people, over to the tribes will come with a slew of tax and law enforcement complications. Since Riverton is now part of the Wind River reservation, it is technically no longer eligible for state services and no longer falls under local law enforcement. Mead, however, has ordered that state agencies conduct “business as usual” in regards to Riverton, meaning state services, law enforcement and regulations will continue.

“This is an alarming action when you have a federal agency step in and start to undo congressional acts that has really been our history for 108 years … with the stroke of a pen without talking to the biggest groups impacted,” state Sen. Leland Christensen told The Daily Caller News Foundation, “and that would be the city of Riverton and the state of Wyoming.”

According to the Mead’s office, the EPA’s decision came as a surprise to him, and he only found about it from the media — not the EPA itself. This comes after Mead wrote to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy last August detailing his concerns about the implications of granting the tribes’ request to effectively override the 1905 act.

The tribes remain adamant that Riverton and the one million acres of land is theirs, arguing that state officials once supported such a conclusion. Tribal officials have criticized tthe governor’s office for changing its tune on Riverton and the reservation’s boundaries.

“Now that the [Interior Department] 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 Northern Arapaho Business Council wrote in a letter to Mead, adding that the state’s shift in rhetoric could hurt tribe-state relations.

The dispute has received little national attention as of yet, but the Wyoming congressional delegation has written the EPA on the issue.

“The EPA’s decision has in effect overturned a law that has been governing land and relationships for more than 100 years,” wrote Wyoming Sens Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, along with Rep. Cynthia Lummis. “We are also very concerned about the political ramifications this decision could have for the tribes and the state of Wyoming.”

The boundary dispute between Wyoming and the tribes has been going on for some time now. It arose from a 2009 tax case that the state urged the courts not to drop because of the “implications of ruling on a boundary without the federal government and Eastern Shoshone being involved in the case,” reports the Casper Star-Tribune.

“We don’t have a fully binding decision,” Deputy Attorney General Marty Hardsocg in 2009. “We do in the state, but the state is then put in a position of having to rely on the federal government’s view for its direction.”

“At the end, of the day state lawyers acknowledge that this determination is a federal question and must be determined to a final point in the federal courts,” Mark Howell, the lobbyist for the Northern Arapaho tribe, told the Star-Tribune. “That’s what this EPA decision will allow all parties to do.”

State courts have heard at least two cases on the boundary in the last three decades — one 1980s Wyoming Supreme Court case found that Riverton was part of the reservation, and another state high court case in 2008, which found that the town was in Wyoming.

The only problem is that the state court decisions don’t set a solid precedent, since neither case involves both tribes living on the reservation, nor the state and the federal government all at once, Howell told the Star-Tribune.

The EPA did not immediately respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment.

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