CHEYENNE, Wyo. - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that congressional action nearly a century ago didn't change the legal status of nearly 1.5 million acres around Riverton as Indian Country.
The EPA on Friday sent notice to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes that the federal agency has approved their application to have the Wind River Indian Reservation treated as a separate state for purposes of implementing the federal Clean Air Act. The tribes share the central Wyoming reservation.
In setting formal reservation boundaries, the EPA agreed with the tribes that a 1905 federal law that opened reservation lands around Riverton to settlement by non-Indians didn't extinguish the land's reservation status. Most of the land was never homesteaded and remained tribally owned.
"We are extremely pleased with the EPA action announced earlier today," Darrell O'Neal Sr., chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said in a prepared statement. "It affirms what the tribe has believed all along, that Riverton and the area north of the Big Wind River is a part of the reservation."
The legal status of the lands has been a point of contentious disagreement between the tribes and state and local governments over taxation issues as well as criminal jurisdiction for many years.
Gov. Matt Mead wrote to the EPA in August opposing the tribe's request to legally designate the lands as Indian Country.
"The tribes' application, if granted, has implications for criminal law, civil law, water law and taxation," Mead wrote the EPA in August. "It also takes away the voices of citizens in Kinnear, Riverton and Pavillion."
Former Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg wrote to the EPA in 2009 stating that the application covered lands that Congress has removed from the reservation.
Renny MacKay, spokesman for Mead, said EPA officials met with representatives of the governor's office and the Wyoming attorney general's office Monday evening.
"It is outrageous to me that a regulatory agency has proposed changing jurisdictional boundaries established by history and the courts," Mead said in a statement Monday evening. "I have asked the attorney general to challenge this decision and defend the existing boundaries of the reservation."
EPA Regional Administrator Shaun L. McGrath conveyed his agency's decision document to tribal officials with a letter dated Friday. The decision document states that the EPA asked the U.S. Department of Interior for a legal opinion regarding the boundary of the Wind River Indian Reservation in 2009.
The decision document states that the Interior Department solicitor provided a written opinion in late 2011, "that the 1905 Act did not diminish the Wind River Indian Reservation." The decision document states that the EPA prepared its own legal analysis and reached the same conclusion.
Regarding air quality, the EPA decision means that the tribes must be consulted on activities within 50 miles of the reservation boundary that could affect air quality. The tribes will be able to apply for grants to develop air quality monitoring programs and could proceed to apply for permission to administer air quality programs of their own in the future.
Tribal members have been rebuffed repeatedly in the courts in their efforts to get recognition for the lands around Riverton as Indian Country for purposes of taxation and criminal jurisdiction.
If the land around Riverton is legally Indian Country, it would mean that American Indians there would not be subject to state taxation or state criminal jurisdiction on the land. Any criminal prosecutions of Indians would occur in tribal or federal courts.
The changes put forward by the EPA would not go into effect until this decision is published in the Federal Register and a 60-day public comment period has passed.