Indian reservations: Environmental refuge or homeland?

To non-Indians, reservations look like vast de facto wildlife areas. But that's not what they're for.

  • Daniel McCool

    University of Utah photo

Note: this essay is part of a package of articles in this print edition speculating about the future of the West as a cultural region.

Roland McCook is a frustrated man. As chairman of the tribal council of the Northern Ute Tribe, he is charged with governing the 1,900-square-mile Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah. But he keeps running into endangered species.

"This is an Indian reservation. We have our own government; we are not just part of the audience at a public hearing on endangered species."

Chairman McCook and his colleagues on the tribal council are especially concerned about recent decisions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency, like all federal agencies, is required to consult with tribes on all issues of common interest. But the Utes say no one is listening to their concerns. McCook says the tribal council repeatedly told the Fish and Wildlife Service they were opposed to the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets near the reservation.

"Then we get this letter from them, saying, "One of the issues on which I really believe we can agree is the experimental reintroduction of black-footed ferrets ..."

"We're talking, but nobody is listening!"

"They seem oblivious to us," said Kirby Arrive, another tribal council member.

"It's just being crammed down our throats," added councilman Ron Wopsock.

Other tribes express similar frustrations. The Navajo Nation has been trying to negotiate its claims in the Little Colorado River Basin for 10 years. Tribal attorney Stanley Pollack says, "Wherever we turn, we run into endangered-species problems. Take your pick: We proposed a small dam, but an endangered fish stopped that; we proposed a small irrigation project, but an endangered plant stopped that."

Throughout the West, Indian tribes are confronting problems with endangered species and with other laws aimed at preserving land, water and wildlife. Indian lands have not experienced the exponential growth that has changed the face of the West, and they did not derive much benefit from the massive federal effort to develop the West's water resources.

So they are home to endangered animals, and tribes may bear a disproportionate burden in protecting them. Smiley Arrowchis, another Ute tribal council member, says: "We're being punished for being Indian people, for caring about our wildlife and our lands."

There are 550 federally recognized Indian tribes in control of 55 million acres of tribal trust land, and another 44 million acres of Alaskan native land. In addition, tribes control purchased lands and accustomed-use areas. According to the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, tribal governments control a natural-resource base of over 140,625 square miles, containing more than 730,000 acres of lakes and impoundments, and over 10,000 miles of streams and rivers.

Combined, this land would constitute the fifth largest state in the United States. It's almost the size of Montana and 40,000 square miles larger than Colorado. According to the Indian Data Center, reservations contain 44 million acres of grazing land, 5.3 million acres of commercial forests, 2.5 million acres of farmland, 4 percent of U.S. oil and gas reserves, 40 percent of known uranium deposits and 30 percent of Western coal.

Indian tribes allow companies to lease nearly a million acres for mineral and oil production; their annual royalties from these mines and wells total $160 million. And many reservations still have vast reaches of unspoiled, undeveloped land, often of great beauty.

Nevertheless, Indian people are the poorest Americans. They suffer from 50 percent unemployment, with 30 percent of those who have jobs living under the poverty line. Indian people were nearly exterminated in the 19th century, but have made a remarkable recovery. Today there are 1.6 million enrolled tribal members; reservation lands must provide a home and a livelihood for these people.

To non-Indians, reservations may look like vast de facto wilderness and wildlife areas - a last refuge from the West's rapid development. But that is not their purpose.

Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent David Allison says, "Reservations are not parks or wildlife refuges, and they're not public land. The 'public' on an Indian reservation consists solely of tribal members, and (the land) should be managed in their interest."

There are situations, such as the effort to restore salmon in the Columbia River Basin, where environmentalists and tribes have worked together. Environmentalists have also supported efforts by the Pyramid Lake Paiutes to restore the lake that gave the tribe its name. And environmentalists cheered when Isleta Pueblo forced Albuquerque to clean up its pollution of the Rio Grande River.

But those who claim the pro-earth mantle of Chief Seattle have also tried to impose their will on Indian Country, ignoring the right of tribes to govern their lands and resources. The goals of environmental groups are laudable, but their lack of respect for Indian sovereignty has strained the relationship between the "first environmentalists" and today's environmental protectors.

One solution is to ignore tribal rights, and attempt to ride roughshod over tribal self-government - as when Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt declared that the Skull Valley Goshutes have no right to develop a nuclear-waste site on their land.

To destroy tribal unity, the governor spent state funds to support the attorneys for a small group of tribal dissidents, thus undermining the elected government on the reservation. The result was an ugly standoff between tribal officials on one side, and state officials and environmentalists on the other. It will take years to heal.

A very different approach is to offer tribes an alternative to damaging development. If non-Indian governments and interest groups want to preserve land, water courses, or wildlife on reservations, they must provide benefits that will allow Indian governments to meet their mandate to manage reservations as viable homelands. Roland McCook put it this way: "I want environmental groups to consider our needs to the same extent that they consider their own. We have to live out here."

In the New West, Indian tribes must be a working partner. We cannot ask Indian people to remain in poverty because the rest of the West is overdeveloped. The leaders of the New West should work with Indian governments to help them build sustainable economies. The alternative is to engage in a modern version of the Indian wars, converting Indian homelands into ecological preserves for the benefit of those who have already despoiled their own lands.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Daniel McCool

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