Residents of Riverton, Wyoming, will soon live in the Wind River Indian Reservation and not in the state of Wyoming if a controversial decision by the Environmental Protection Agency is upheld.
Wyoming officials are upset because they say the EPA arbitrarily redrew the Reservation’s boundaries to include Riverton — a city of 10,000 people — and two other towns in mid-December. All total, the federal government transferred 1 million acres of land, without Congress even having a say. A century ago, Congress said the land was not Native American land.
“My deep concern is about an administrative agency of the federal government altering a state’s boundary and going against over 100 years of history and law,” Wyoming Governor Matt Mead said of the EPA’s decision. “This should be a concern to all citizens because, if the EPA can unilaterally take land away from a state, where will it stop?”
Mead also said, “It is outrageous to me that a regulatory agency has proposed changing jurisdictional boundaries established by history and the Courts.”
Wyoming is challenging the government’s action in court.
The EPA’s action began as a routine request for federal funds to monitor air quality on the reservation. The Clean Air Act gives reservation governments the right to monitor air quality. The EPA granted the request but ruled that the reservation’s boundaries include Riverton and the small towns of Kinnear and Pavillion.
No Longer in the State of Wyoming
All three communities were originally within the boundaries of the Wind River Reservation when it was set up in 1868. Congress changed the reservation’s boundaries in 1905 to open the region of central Wyoming up for homesteading. The Northern Arapaho and Shoshone tribes that live on the reservation challenged the action in federal court but lost.
The EPA effectively overruled Congress and the federal courts by making a decision about the reservation’s boundaries, Mead and Wyoming Attorney General Peter K. Michael contend. If the EPA’s decision stands, the state of Wyoming will no longer have any authority over Riverton and the other towns. That means state law will no longer be in effect there and the state can longer collect taxes in the area.
This also means that the legal status of the citizens of Riverton is unclear. A letter from the Northern Arapaho Business Council to the Mayor of Riverton suggests that Riverton police officers be deputized as tribal police and that prisoners in the local jail be transferred to tribal custody.
“There are at least two valuable federal tax incentives available to enterprises within Indian country,” the letter noted. It also suggested that taxes will go down in Riverton because of the decision. “The EPA decision should now allow Riverton businesses to use accelerated property depreciation schedules and to obtain employment payroll tax credits through the IRS.”
State and Local Officials Caught by Surprise
Attorney General Michael has filed a petition of reconsideration asking federal courts to overturn the EPA’s action. The petition contains 22,000 pages of supporting evidence.
Critics are accusing the EPA and the tribal government of staging a blatant land grab. They also allege that the agency made no effort to alert anybody in Wyoming to the pending action.
“The EPA did not meet with the governor and did not give us a heads up that this decision was coming,” Renny MacKay, Mead’s spokesman, told NewsMax.
“We did not know anything until we read about it in the news and started getting calls from the media for comment,” Riverton city administrator Steven Weaver said.
Riverton released its own statement:
To date, all court rulings have agreed that the City of Riverton is not on the Wind River Reservation and is not Indian Country. There has been no legal change of status regarding criminal law or civil law in Riverton. Tax rates and collection methods remain the same, court jurisdictions remain the same, and police authority remains the same throughout Riverton. Future changes in legal status will only be recognized when issued by a legal court authority with the proper jurisdiction to rule on such matters.
Legal Ramifications Unclear
The legal ramifications of the EPA’s decision could be immense, because Indian reservations are not considered part of a state. Instead, they are under the jurisdiction of tribal governments and federal law. That is why reservations can have legalized gambling even in states where casinos are illegal.