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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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Alaska tribes sign agreement for refuge services
Monday, May 3, 2004

After nearly two years of negotiation, the first tribal agreement to provide services to a federal wildlife refuge was signed on Friday.

Representatives of the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments came to Washington, D.C., to ink the unique contract. The council, which represents 11 tribes in Alaska, will help manage the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

"This historic agreement is one of the first of its kind, and we look forward to an ongoing relationship that will continue for years and will ultimately improve the management and operation of the Yukon Flats for future generations," said Anna Huntington-Kriska, the council's executive director.

The agreement was signed with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the national refuge system. The tribes will perform a number of activities for the 2004-2005 season, including surveying moose, monitoring wildlife harvest, helping with outreach in local villages, identifying and marking public access easements and maintaining some federal property in and around Yukon Flats.

"For most of known history, Indian cultures, religious beliefs and customs have centered on their relationship with fish and wildlife resources," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who accepted the agreement at a ceremony on Friday.

Even though all decision-making and management authority stays with the refuge, two groups have protested the agreement. The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Blue Goose Alliance of New Mexico fear the Bush administration will turn over management of national refuges and parks to tribes in Alaska and the Lower 48.

PEER points to an April 2002 Federal Register notice that identified 41 refuges and 34 national parks for possible tribal management. The group, which also opposes efforts to allow states to manage federal properties, says tribal control will lead to downsizing and reduced services.

Under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, tribes can enter into contracts and compacts to carry out services previously handled by the federal government. Tribes use the law to take over Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service programs.

In recent years, tribes have sought to extend the law to other Interior agencies but have run into resistance from some government officials, outside groups and non-Indians. An effort by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe of Montana to help manage the National Bison Range, located entirely within reservation boundaries, ended this year with no agreement.

Under the self-determination law, only refuges and parks that have tribal significant are eligible for agreements. Tribes must demonstrate cultural, historic and legal ties to a particular federal property.

That isn't hard for the Alaska tribes, five of which are located within the boundaries of 8.5-million acre Yukon Flats. The rest are located around the refuge.

The agreement is subject to a 90-day Congressional review period. Lawmakers on the House Resources Committee and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee have supported tribal contracting for refuges and parks, and both committees have held hearings on the subject.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the vice chairman of the Indian panel, last week held a hearing on a draft bill that would encourage more tribal-federal partnerships. "Tribal governments are the principal stewards of the natural resources on tribal lands," he said. "And for thousands of years before the European contact, tribes also served as the responsible stewards of the natural resources on the millions of acres of land that were under their dominion and control."

Relevant Documents:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, Reach Agreement (USFWS)

Relevant Links:
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility - http://www.peer.org

Related Stories:
Alaska tribes to get contract for wildlife refuge (2/18)
Tribal bison range talks continue (10/9)
Group opposing tribal control of park units (6/10)

GOP lawmaker challenges Bush administration (6/6)
Alaska Native hearing turns testy (6/5)

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