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

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...