Battle lines harden among lawmakers as EPA mediation looms
By Ron Feemster
— February 18, 2014
The hot conflict over the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to treat Wind River Indian Reservation tribes as a state under the Clean Air Act began to cool during the last 10 days, as almost all parties agreed that it was time to talk, not fight, about the boundaries of the reservation.
Alone among the stakeholders in the EPA dispute, the state Legislature is debating bills that may increase rather than decrease tensions about the reservation boundaries.
The tensions began to wane a week ago Friday, before the Legislature convened, when tribal governments joined Gov. Matt Mead in calling for the EPA to stay its decision. The tribes were responding in part to a letter from John Vincent, a former mayor of Riverton who cited WyoFile’s coverage of a similar reservation boundary dispute in Michigan in his call to the negotiating table.
With appeals from the state and the tribes in its in-basket, the EPA stayed the portion of its decision related to Riverton and other disputed areas last Thursday until the matter can be sorted out in court. On Friday, Mead and Attorney General Peter K. Michael filed, as anticipated, a petition to review the EPA decision in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“This is good news for Wyoming,” Mead said through a spokesman. “I asked for this and I appreciate the EPA’s action. We will continue to pursue our challenge in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals because this stay does not change the court’s deadlines. This action provides more certainty for all citizens of the state until the court can rule or the EPA reconsiders its decision.”
The Tenth Circuit will require mediation as part of the appeals process, so all parties that join the petition — presumably the tribes, Fremont County and the city of Riverton — will get a seat at the table when the state and the EPA try to sort out their differences.
The tribes, disturbed by what they regarded as alarmist rhetoric and strident affidavits in the state’s original petition to the EPA to stay the decision, see mediation as an opportunity to clarify issues and turn down the temperature on the debate.
“The State has been telling people in Riverton that the EPA decision will cause chaos,” said Dean Goggles, a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council. “It’s nonsense. The stay allows us time to talk to each other without the panic Wyoming has been trying to create.”
The Eastern Shoshone tribe also weighed in after the EPA issued the stay.
“As the treaty tribe, we see the benefits of all parties mutually supporting this EPA action,” said Darwin St. Clair, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council. “It allows the courts and the court processes to sort out the historical and statutory facts and not have this disagreement play out in our communities.”
Meanwhile, in the Legislature, lawmakers are taking a hard line. House Bill 78 provides an unspecified sum of money “to fund actions … the governor determines necessary or advisable to protect the state’s tax base or property rights within the state from actions taken by the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who co-sponsored the House bill and introduced an identical bill in the Senate, Senate File 75, says the bills fund the state’s battle against wide-ranging overreach by the regulatory agency. House Bill 78 was introduced by a vote of 56-3 while Senate File 75 advanced 28-2.
Indian leaders, on the other hand, fear the Legislature is bankrolling a war chest to fight the EPA’s decision regarding reservation boundaries. The more money the state sets aside for other battles with the EPA, the more of the attorney general’s funding is left over to combat the boundary dispute.
Rep. Dave Miller (R-Riverton) introduced House Bill 164 to define the boundaries of the reservation to the area south of the Wind River. When he introduced the bill, he said the goal is to codify in statute what the state has regarded as the reservation boundary for more than a century, ever since a land act opened the area north of the river to homesteading by non-Natives in 1905.
Speaking against the bill, Rep. Patrick Goggles (D-Ethete) said all other parties in the dispute had stayed their actions and were prepared to negotiate.
“It would be appropriate for this body to stay its actions as well,” he said in front of the House.
Addressing Goggles as his “colleague from the other side of the [Wind] river,” Miller suggested in his rebuttal that the long-term issue was far from resolved.
“We’ve got a little reprieve here, but we are still going to be dealing with this issue for a while,” he said.
Unlike the tribes and the Department of Interior, whose opinion the EPA relied on in its decision, lawmakers appear to believe that the 1905 Act diminished the size of the reservation. House Bill 164 was introduced with a vote of 46-13. If House Bill 164 becomes law, all state maps must reflect the reservation boundaries specified in the bill.
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @feemsternews.
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.