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Bison range fight is not about Indian rights

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Your story about the hand-over of three national wildlife refuges to a Montana tribe oversimplified a very complex issue (HCN, 7/7/03: Back on the range?). Despite your portrayal of talks between the Department of the Interior and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as a unique attempt to reunite the tribes with bison and lands taken from them decades ago, these secret negotiations are setting dangerous precedents for both the national wildlife refuge system and the national park system. Seventy-five national parks and wildlife refuges — including Redwood, Mount Rainier and Glacier national parks, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — are also eligible for similar tribal management plans.

While Undersecretary of the Interior Paul Hoffman has stated that “inherently federal” duties would not be ceded to the tribes, he has also publicly admitted that “inherently federal” is a gray area that will be determined by negotiation. Yet, because the negotiations have been held behind closed doors, without opportunity for public input or oversight, Hoffman and the tribes themselves seek to define those functions as they see fit.

This is not a Native American issue, nor is it a question of whether the tribes could or would successfully operate the National Bison Range and associated refuges. Rather, this is a case of Secretary Gale Norton and her aides taking advantage of political sensitivity to Indian self-determination issues to advance private management of public assets.

Gene Hocutt
Aurora, New York

The writer is director of the Refuge Keeper chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

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