In a startling revelation by the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that the City of Riverton has been part of the Wind River Indian Reservation for the past 108 years.
The revelation came to light after a five-year wait for the approval of an application by the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes to gain state status for administering air quality on the reservation. The decision won't only affect environmental policy. It's likely to bring about broad changes to how the governments of Riverton and Fremont County function.
The tribes’ motivation for filing the application was twofold: getting more federal money to monitor air quality on the reservation and winning back land that had been opened up to non-tribal members thanks to a 1905 federal law.
The tribes were able to use a piece of the Clean Air Act to win the ruling.
A part of the environmental legislation allows tribes to file applications as a state in order to delineate boundaries and receive higher levels of grant funding for monitoring their air quality.
States — or in this case, the tribes — must monitor up to 50 miles beyond any boundary demarcating land monitored under the Clean Air Act.
Because the reservation surrounds Riverton, federal agencies found that the city falls under the jurisdiction of the tribes.
The EPA, along with the Department of Interior and the Department of Justice, conducted thousands of pages of studies to come to a conclusion on the boundaries, said Mark Howell, Washington spokesman for the Northern Arapaho tribe.
The ruling draws questions about what local and state government will do in the wake of the decision.
The biggest concern is what will constitute criminal jurisdiction for tribal and non-tribal members.
In most cases, nonnative members cannot be prosecuted in tribal courts if they commit a crime on the reservation. Tribal members who commit a crime off the reservation are obliged to go to state and federal courts.
The state has been opposed to changing the boundaries since the application process by the tribes began.
A 2009 letter from former Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg to the EPA criticized a potential boundary change.
“Wyoming believes that the tribes’ proposed exterior boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation are inaccurate. The boundaries, as proposed, include lands which were ceded by the tribes by congressional act in 1905 and not restored to the tribes by subsequent acts of Congress.”
In August, Gov. Matt Mead sent a letter to then-EPA head Gina McCarthy about his concerns.
He called the proposal “extremely problematic.”
“The tribes' application if granted has implications for criminal law, civil law, water law and taxation,” Mead wrote. “It also takes away the voice of citizens in Kinnear, Riverton and Pavillion.”
Howell assured all parties involved that the tribes want to sit down with state and local officials to work out a solution.
Nothing is going to happen overnight, Howell said.
“(Today) criminal jurisdiction doesn’t change,” he said. “We’re all at status quo. Tribes requested that because they want to be good neighbors and good friends and work in cooperation with state, county and federal governments.”
The relationship between the tribes and Riverton hasn’t always been pleasant during the past century. But city council members seemed optimistic about the ruling.
A new application of federal tax law will be beneficial to Riverton. Now that it's on the reservation, Riverton businesses that hire tribal members will get payroll tax credits for hiring native employees.
“These tax incentives could have wide-ranging effects for Riverton business owners and for tribal members looking for jobs in Riverton,” Councilman Ron McElroy said in a media release.
Tribal officials were elated with the decision.
“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,” Darrell O’Neal Sr., chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said in a news release.