A flurry of confusion shrouds an Environmental Protection Agency ruling that claims Riverton as part of the Wind River Indian Reservation.
But those working closely with the tribes and federal government believe it’s a complicated but clear-cut case.
The EPA’s decision raised the eyebrows of local and state officials on Monday after it declared Riverton has been part of the reservation for the past 108 years.
The announcement came five years after the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes filed an application with the EPA to have more authority in monitoring the reservation's air quality.
The boundaries of Riverton and environmental policy may seem independent of one another.
But the application process forced the EPA, Department of Interior and Department of Justice to dig through the annals of history to delineate what areas the tribes are in charge of monitoring.
In their research, the agencies discovered that a 1905 land act previously thought to have passed tribal land to homesteaders didn’t legally do so.
Riverton’s boundaries have been a long-running point of contention between tribal members and Riverton residents. While the tribes view the EPA ruling as a victory, city residents don't.
The EPA decision has raised questions about how state and local governments will conduct law enforcement policies, legal jurisdictions and tax collections if the city is truly within the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation.
“On face value it sounds like it could be a very difficult change to swallow,” Riverton City Councilman Jonathan Faubion said.
Riverton City Hall received many inquiries about the EPA decision on Tuesday, Mayor Ronald Warpness said.
“People are already calling asking to get sales tax returns because there’s no sales tax on the reservation,” he said.
Warpness assured the residents there will be no immediate changes to city operations.
“We’re not reacting any way to it,” he said.
The EPA’s decision will be posted on the federal register within in the next few weeks. Once it’s posted, there will be a 60-day appeal and comment period. Gov. Matt Mead announced Monday night he would ask state Attorney General Peter Michael to appeal the EPA’s ruling.
If the state contests the decision, the legal battle will be held in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
High-ranking officials from the DOI, DOJ and EPA have firmly signaled it will be difficult for the decision to be overruled.
The state contends that at least four cases argued in the Wyoming Supreme Court have already set the precedent that Riverton is independent of the reservation.
The tribal and federal governments, though, say the contention about Riverton’s boundaries is not a state issue.
“This is a federal issue,” said Mark Howell, a Northern Arapaho lobbyist who worked on the application.
The EPA’s decision hinged on language in the 1905 law and was backed by U.S. Supreme Court legal precedents.
The 1905 legislation set aside land for non-Indian settlers. The tribes sold 9 percent of the land to settlers. That 9 percent comprises Riverton. The remaining 91 percent was returned to the reservation.
In the wake of the 1905 act, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a number of cases that created precedents for determining valid land transactions from tribes to nontribal members. They are based on three criteria: congressional authority, payment method and contract language. The EPA claims the latter two were not met in regards to the 1905 case.
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard two cases where land sales similar to the one in Riverton have proved unsound, giving the EPA the impetus to make its ruling on Riverton.
“The ruling, from my perspective, is not surprising. I believe the 1905 boundaries did not diminish the Wind River Indian Reservation,” Northern Arapaho member and state Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, said. “I realize there is frustration in terms of jurisdiction issues, but this is a good opportunity for local governments and tribes to work together to minimize those differences of opinion and disputes. Tomorrow the sun will rise and life will go on.”