Butting heads

Politics of race and environment clash at Bison Range


A controversial congressional bill concerning tribal compacts with the federal government has aggravated the tension between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe (CSKT) at the National Bison Range.

Jeff Ruch, director of Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has warned that the bill would create a “herd of Haliburtons” working for the U.S. Department of Interior. But PEER’s strong rhetoric has drawn the Montana Human Rights Network into the fray, accusing PEER of exacerbating racist sentiments in Montana.

In a recent statement widely distributed to the media, PEER argues that HR 3994, sponsored by Oklahoma Democratic Rep. Dan Boren, would potentially allow tribal governments to take over national parks and wildlife refuges, including Glacier National Park and the National Bison Range. The bill was heard in committee on Nov. 8 and currently awaits a vote to move on to the full House of Representatives.

Boren’s bill changes some language in the Indian Self Determination Act that since 1994 has allowed tribes to sign compacts with the federal government to take over management of lands “of special geographic, historical or cultural significance to the participating tribe.” So far, only the CSKT have taken advantage of the management opportunity created by the law, but tribal management of the Bison Range ended in December of 2006. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees allege harassment and claim the tribes failed to complete tasks required to properly care for the range. The CSKT denies the allegations, saying anti-Indian sentiment harbored by some Fish and Wildlife Service employees colored their assessments of the tribe’s work. The Fish and Wildlife Service has told the tribes it will reopen negotiations on the Bison Range agreement “soon,” although no specific overtures have been made. PEER argues that the new bill will tilt the negotiations in the CSKT’s favor.

But Rob McDonald, communications director for the CSKT, disagrees with PEER about the consequences of new legislation, and dismisses PEER’s claim that HR 3994 would invite tribal takeover of the parks. “I think a calm look at the law and its intention clearly shows that [PEER is] a bit alarmist, if not way off base,” he says.

McDonald says PEER paints the tribes as the “dupes” of a Bush administration bent on dishing off public services to private entities, with tribal compacts serving as the administration’s ultimate weapon, because they pit environmentalists against Native Americans. And the Montana Human Rights Network believes PEER’s strong statements opposing tribal management aggravate anti-Indian sentiment in Montana.

Montana Human Rights Network Director Travis McAdam points out that PEER isn’t the first to raise the fear that tribal governments will take over public parks. “That’s an argument that anti-indian groups have made for decades. Any movement by the tribe to exercise its sovereignty, the reaction was if we give into them on this, they’re going to take over Flathead Lake, they’re going to take over Glacier.”

McAdam says PEER’s statements have validated the stance of people who oppose tribal control of the Bison Range on essentially racist grounds. “Long-time anti-Indian activists in the area looked at conservationists coming into this battle and went ‘Oh, hey, if we use their rhetoric it gives us a way to downplay the race issue,’” says McAdam.

Furthermore, he alleges, PEER utilizes some familiar anti-Indian language. “After a while some of the statements PEER was making started to use these racist stereotypes that Indians were lazy, and that no work was getting done,” McAdam says.

The Human Rights Network stated as much in a letter sent to PEER earlier this year, which read, “We cannont ignore the racism that is always near the surface of the Bison Range controversy.”

“We wanted to make them aware that they were stepping into a racially charged controversy,” says McAdam. “We never got any response. I’m not even sure if they read it.”

In an interview with the Independent, PEER Director Ruch acknowledged the letter, but countered, “We think we’ve been fairly clear that the nature of our problems really has nothing to do with who is doing this; it’s a question of how they’re doing it.”

Ruch says PEER does not oppose tribal management of the Bison Range per se. However, he sees trouble if control of public lands falls into the hands of separate sovereign governments, thus limiting the public’s power to oversee the work being done on the lands to assure quality.

“When tribes take over public services that are there to serve all people, and they’re being paid with federal tax dollars, how do you make sure that the services are delivered and delivered well?” Ruch asks.

But CSKT’s McDonald notes the performance standards required by law. “There’s a criteria, not just every tribe gets sudden [management] of these things. You have to prove capability, you have to have a historical/cultural link,” McDonald says.

To make his point, he cites the tribe’s takeover of Mission Valley Power. “When we wanted to contract that out for the federal government, and take over that, we heard the exact same complaints 20 years ago that you hear today. ‘The tribes can’t handle that, they’re going to screw it up, they’re going to stick it to white people, and you can’t trust the tribes to do these things, how dare they have control over non-tribal people,’” McDonald says. “You don’t hear those complaints anymore, because we have the second cheapest power in the state.”

Sharon Rose, a spokesperson for the FWS on the Bison Range issue, says the federal government hopes to reach some agreement for joint management by spring.

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