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The Crow Tribe has shut down construction of a $15 million federal high-speed Internet project, citing concerns about historic preservation.

The tribe issued a cease and desist order to contractor Nemont Telephone Cooperative at the end of May, citing the need for a historic-preservation permit and demanding that historic-preservation monitors be present at all future construction.

Emerson Bull Chief, the tribe’s historic-preservation officer, said he is concerned that subcontractors working for Nemont won’t properly handle items of historical interest they may encounter while working on the reservation.

The tribe is calling on the Rural Utilities Service branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rewrite the terms of the project to accommodate Crow historic-preservation terms, and funding for Crow site monitors. In addition, the tribe is demanding one monitor be paid for work done last summer. Bull Chief said he was uncertain of the amount owed, but that it was much smaller than the rumored $55,000 amount.

Amending the agreement

“Under the Tribal Historic Preservation Office law, we can halt a project and issue fines. This is what we’re going to do,” Bull Chief said. “We need to amend the programmatic agreement.”

USDA, in a statement issued Friday, said historic preservation steps have already been taken under the terms of the original project contract. On-site monitors were not part of that agreement.

“The Tribe is seeking additional payment from Nemont for work that was not included in the original agreement,” said Anne Mayberry, RUS spokeswoman. “The entire route was subject to an inspection by the Crow tribal archaeologist, and under the terms of the existing agreement portions of the route were monitored by the tribe. To date, no tribal cultural resources in the construction route have been identified.”

Nemont CEO Mike Kilgore told The Gazette it’s up to the Crow Tribe and RUS to decide whether the project contract is amended to pay for constant site monitoring. Nemont has applied for the historic-preservation permit the tribe demanded, he said. The permit application fee of a few hundred dollars was paid at the beginning of June. Nemont hasn’t heard back from Bull Chief.

Rural program

The project to provide broadband Internet service to tribal locations is a part of a rural Internet program rolled out in 2010 as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Crow Indian Reservation received two projects. The first development was a $3.9 million “middle mile” project to connect Fort Smith, Pryor and Saint Xavier to existing fiber optic networks in Lockwood. That project connected 1,765 households, as well as businesses and government buildings. The second development was a $15.4 million “last mile” project to connect Crow Agency and Lodge Grass, including 1,495 households and 26 government buildings, some of which were schools.

It’s the last-mile project that the tribe shut down.

Bull Chief said that last summer he became concerned about historic items being damaged by Nemont subcontractors after learning that portions of a historic well had been damaged at the original Crow Agency compound near Absarokee. Absarokee is no longer part of the reservation, but from 1875 to 1884 was central to a reservation that spanned 35 million acres. The well was apparently marked in 2011 when Highway 78 road construction project passed through the area. Highway 78 divides the original Crow Agency. Bull Chief said the tribe well site was marked and should have been avoided, although the site was off the reservation and beyond Bull Chief’s supervision.

Kilgore said Nemont knows nothing of a damaged well in Absarokee. The middle-mile project, completed last summer, was honored with a ceremony, he said.

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“We’ve been hard at work for the past couple years,” Kilgore said. “The first project, the middle-mile project is completed. We had a dedication ceremony last summer. It was a wonderful accomplishment.”

Sometime last summer, the Crow historic preservation officers began monitoring broadband construction in the areas that previously had been determined to be non-historic.

Bull Chief told The Gazette that his monitors haven’t been welcome at those construction sites. Bull Chief said that at one point last summer workers for one of the subcontractors threw ordinary rocks at a monitor, telling him “here’s another one of your arrows.”

Kilgore said Nemont wasn’t aware of any such incident and wouldn’t tolerate it.

Both Nemont and USDA said they will honor the tribe’s cease and desist order.

There’s a timing concern about the broadband construction. Because the projects were part of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the funds must be spent by September 2015.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.