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Tribal refuge agreement hailed as positive step

A self-determination agreement to share management of a wildlife refuge was hailed on Wednesday as a new era in federal-tribal relations.

Officials of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana were in Washington, D.C., to fulfill a dream that began nearly a century ago when the National Bison Range was created within reservation boundaries. The land was taken without tribal consent in 1908 but elders never gave up their connection to the property.

Now, after two years of controversial negotiations, the tribe will get a part of its legacy back. In only the second deal of its kind, the tribe signed a funding agreement to share management duties at the refuge with the federal government.

"This really is a great opportunity for two entities to come together to manage a resource that is so precious to this country in a way that's respectful to our people," tribal chairman D. Fred Matt said at the signing ceremony.

Interior Department officials who worked on the agreement were equally upbeat. Although the Bush administration faced considerable opposition and encountered several delays, they said they were looking towards a brighter future.

"What's really important is the relationship that we're going to develop with the tribe under this new annual funding agreement," said Ralph Morgenweck, a regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It may be the end of one thing but it's truly the beginning of something else and that's what I think we should be celebrating here today."

The agreement was made possible by the Indian Self-Determination Act, first passed in 1975, and the Tribal Self-Governance Act, passed in 1994. The Salish and Kootenai were one of the first tribes to use the laws to take over programs and services formerly managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

Congress amended the laws to extend the concept of self-determination to public lands to which tribes maintain cultural, legal and historical connections. The Interior Department has identified 34 national parks and 31 wildlife refuges eligible for tribal management.

But turning that concept into reality has been a tough one. Tribes have met resistance from federal employees, non-Indians and public interest groups who oppose ceding control of government resources.

The opposition limited the scope of the agreement signed yesterday. Rather than having complete control of the Bison Range, the tribe will carry out elements of the management, biology, fire, maintenance and visitor services programs. A list of activities allowed under these five programs are listed in the agreement. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service retains final authority over all activities.

Retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the outgoing leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, introduced bills this past session to extend self-determination and self-governance programs. Both have said that federal officials are too reluctant to share control with tribal governments despite noted successes.

"An awful lot of agencies in Washington are scared to death of any kind of change that might benefit tribes," Campbell said at a hearing this past April.

At the ceremony, Matt said he didn't feel a lot of pressure to prove to critics that the tribe is capable of managing the National Bison Range. The tribe already manages a range of programs that have boosted employment on the reservation, saved the federal government money and become a model for others.

"I'm excited for the opportunity because I know in years past some of the things that we've taken on as a tribe have been really a stepping stone to where we are today," he said. "I feel that this is just another area where the tribe can show we really mean what we say when we put our name on the line."

A copy of the agreement was transmitted to Campbell's committee and Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), chairman of the House Resources Committee. Congress has 90 days to review the agreement before it goes into effect. Matt and other officials said they were confident that it would meet muster.

Relevant Documents:
Annual Funding Agreement (December 2004

Relevant Links:
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes -
National Bison Range -
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -