In a counterblow aimed at ending the boundary dispute over the Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso drafted a bill with the aid of Gov. Matt Mead’s office to refute the EPA decision that Riverton is part of the reservation.
The trio’s legislation is the latest step in a border war that’s pitted members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes against Wyoming’s elected officials.
The conflict, sparked by the EPA ruling, has ignited tensions between tribal and non-tribal residents of central Wyoming and fueled a debate over which governmental officials have jurisdiction to determine reservation boundaries.
Each side claims the other is unqualified to determine a boundary.
Wyoming lawmakers have harangued the Environmental Protection Agency for concluding that a 1905 land act long thought to have usurped Riverton from the reservation did not do so. Tribal members claim the new draft bill is an arbitrary boundary rewrite done by politicians who have no expertise in delineating borders.
The draft legislation declares the disputed 171,000 acres encompassing Riverton have never been part of the reservation and will continue to remain outside the reservation’s borders.
Despite claims that the environmental regulator acted unilaterally, the EPA, Interior Department and Justice Department reviewed the boundary decision before it became public in December. The EPA cited scores of legal and congressional precedents to substantiate its decision, including an opinion from the Interior Department’s solicitor general.
Despite the federal review, Wyoming’s politicians disagree with the process that led to the EPA’s verdict.
The EPA and court decisions based on EPA actions should not be used to change long-established boundaries, said Coy Knobel, communications director for Enzi.
“Sen. Enzi doesn’t want to change the current boundaries,” he said. “He wants to make sure they stay as they have been for decades.”
Barrasso’s office said the boundaries outlined in 1905 are legal.
“These boundaries should be followed by all parties including the EPA and other federal agencies,” said Laura Mengelkamp, Barrasso’s spokeswoman.
Members of the Northern Arapaho Business Council met with members of the congressional delegation last week to discuss the matter. Enzi’s office claims it worked on the legislation with all stakeholders: the tribes, state government, Fremont County and Riverton.
But the Northern Arapaho said the consulting process didn’t have all hands on deck.
Tribal members asked Enzi and the delegation to reconsider drafting the bill, but they were not interested in doing so, said Northern Arapaho Business Council member, Al Addison.
“The Arapaho business council has been actively opposing anti-sovereignty legislation from the Wyoming delegation for years,” said business councilman Ronald Oldman. “We are prepared to deal with this. But tribal members at Wind River should not be misled. The people in leadership for Wyoming are not our friends.”
The Northern Arapaho’s neighbors on the reservation, the Eastern Shoshone, are less heated about the bill.
“Generally speaking, these types of bills often save everybody time and money in regards to court actions,” said Kimberly Varilek, the tribe’s attorney general. “I think once the tribe has the chance to review the proposed bill they will certainly reach out to the congressional delegation and engage with the senators and the state of Wyoming in regards to the impacts across the board.”
The bill is the second arm of a two-pronged attack by Mead to negate the EPA decision.
The legislation is paired with Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael’s petition in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that’s challenging the EPA decision. Devon Energy and the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation also joined Wyoming to fight against the EPA, Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone in court.
The move for the state to attack the decision in court kicked off in February and jump-started a legal battle that’s likely to end with a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
After filing the lawsuit against the EPA, federal legislation was one of few options remaining on the table for challenging the EPA decision.
The tag-team between Mead and the congressional delegation isn't highlighted often, but it's common for them to work together on Wyoming issues. The Star-Tribune obtained an email from Enzi's office sent to a member of the Arapaho business council that says Mead "has been working with (Enzi's) office on the ... draft legislation."
“(The governor) appreciates the delegation’s efforts,” said Renny MacKay, Mead’s spokesman.
The draft legislation has yet to be introduced and is under review, Knobel said.
The boundary dispute erupted after the EPA granted the tribes Treatment as a State status under the Clean Air Act.
The distinction affords tribes eligibility for more federal dollars and the ability to monitor their air quality like any state in the union.
For the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, applying for state status warranted a ruling on the boundaries of the reservation. The Clean Air Act and EPA’s regulations require the agency to determine a boundary associated with the Tribes application, according to the EPA.
The status does not give tribes any regulatory authority, but does give them the ability to comment and monitor their air quality up to 50 miles beyond the reservation’s boundary.