Three towns in Wyoming have been placed inside an America Indian reservation because the Environmental Protection Agency ignored an act of Congress and unilaterally redrew a Native American reservation's boundary line.
The move, which has outraged the state’s Governor and top politicians, potentially shifts jurisdiction for policing, taxing and other services to Indian tribes.
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"Once again the Obama administration thinks it can ignore the law of the land when it suits their agenda," said Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso in a statement to Newsmax.
"Changes to the reservation boundaries were legally made in the early 1900s. These boundaries should be followed by all parties including the EPA and other agencies within the administration."
The controversy began in December 2008 when the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes submitted a request for federal funds to monitor air quality on its land, using a Clean Air Act provision that permits Native American tribes to file applications as states and to delineate tribal boundaries in order to receive higher levels of funding.
The Wind River Indian Reservation is home to both tribes, as well as Wyoming's only four casinos. At 3,532 square miles — larger than Delaware — it is the seventh-largest Native American reservation in the country, and has more than 10,000 Native American inhabitants.
Established in 1868, it is the burial site for Sacagawea, the Indian companion of early 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
In 1905, Congress acted to reduce the size of the Wind River Reservation by opening it up to homesteading by non-Indians, a decision affirmed in subsequent court rulings, and determined that the towns where the homesteaders settled were not part of the reservation.
EPA's decision to grant "state status" to the two tribes for the purpose of monitoring air quality overturned those congressional actions.
In June 2009, then-Attorney General Bruce Salzburg sent a letter to the EPA raising concerns about a potential boundary change.
"Wyoming believes that the tribes' proposed exterior boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation are inaccurate. The boundaries, as proposed, include lands which were ceded by the tribes by congressional act in 1905 and not restored to the tribes by subsequent acts of Congress."
Wyoming Republican Gov. Matt Mead wrote a letter to EPA in August reasserting the state's opposition to the application, arguing that if it was approved it would have "implications for criminal law, civil law, water law, and taxation, and would also take away the voices of the citizens in Kinnear, Riverton, and Pavillion," the towns impacted by the EPA's action.
While the EPA concluded its analysis
of the request in 2011, the agency did not release a decision until December, stating that the Wind River Indian Reservation would now include Riverton, Kinnear, and Pavillion.
Gov. Mead reacted quickly
: “I have asked the [Wyoming] attorney general to challenge this decision and defend the existing boundaries of the reservation."
Wyoming's congressional delegation also weighed in with a letter to the EPA, criticizing the decision for overturning "a law that has been governing land and relationships for more than 100 years."
Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis and Sens. Barrasso and Mike Enzi, all Republicans, said they were concerned about the potential precedent "to alter civil and criminal jurisdiction in the area" that EPA's action could establish.
Riverton is a town of over 10,000 residents, while Kinnear and Pavillion are communities with populations numbering in the hundreds. Riverton is 83.5 percent white and 10.4 percent Native American, according to the 2010 Census.
As a result of the EPA action
, Joan Evans, Director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, said the state may no longer have jurisdiction to conduct audits to see if Riverton businesses comply with worker compensation and unemployment laws, The Casper Star-Tribune reported. Other state officials told the newspaper that responsibility for emergency services would shift to the tribes, and the state would end its inspections of restaurants.
Tribal leaders have been critical of the governor's petition to stay the decision. In a letter sent to the mayor of Riverton
, the Northern Arapahoe Business Council said they wanted to meet to discuss tax issues, as well as matters related to law enforcement, a clear sign they see EPA's decision reaching beyond the monitoring of air quality.
"The EPA did not meet with the governor and did not give us a heads up that this decision was coming,” Renny MacKay, spokesman for Gov. Mead, told Newsmax.
Steven Weaver, Riverton's city administrator, told Newsmax: "We did not know anything until we read about it in the news and started getting calls from the media for comment.
"While there has not been too much outcry because residents have lived through several court cases, there is a lot of uncertainty about what this really means.
"We have gotten calls from Native Americans saying, 'We paid our sales tax, now we want our money back,' or saying they were finally going to get their land back.
The EPA did not respond to calls from Newsmax for comment.
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