- - Monday, February 10, 2014

With breathtaking mountains, constant wind and a tiny carbon footprint, Wyoming has some of the prettiest scenery and cleanest air in the nation.

Wyoming ranks 10th among the states in size, but with only 580,000 people — fewer than the city of Las Vegas — it’s only 49th in population density. You can throw a lot of rocks and not hit anybody — for miles.

You might think that it would be the last place that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would play the federal bully by using air-quality mandates. You’d be wrong.

In December, the EPA effectively seized about 1 million acres of land, including the entire central Wyoming town of Riverton, and put it under the authority of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The agency did so by granting a “Treatment as a State” application from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes to get funding for air-quality monitoring under the Clean Air Act.

In its approval of the application, the EPA granted the tribes’ claim that an act of Congress in 1905 was inconclusive about the size of the reservation. So the EPA decided to put the town under reservation authority.

The EPA was established in 1970 under President Nixon with a mandate to clean up the nation’s air and water, not to start divvying up land parcels. In issuing its edict, the rogue federal agency overturned 109 years of legal history.

Now, Riverton’s approximately 10,000 residents are in a legal no man’s land, wondering whether to move, to adapt to life on the reservation, or to hunker down and prepare for civil disobedience. Most remain somewhat confident that the courts will straighten it out. A few opportunists are operating, though.

A town official told me that one miscreant called the police department and asked that his record be expunged now that he was no longer under their jurisdiction. The cops declined. No word on whether they were annoyed or amused.

Local officials don’t think it will actually culminate in legal chaos, but they are not happy. Riverton Mayor Ronald O. Warpness did say that he had received a phone call from an EPA official “apologizing profusely” for all the trouble, according to The Ranger, a local paper. Apologies are nice. Withdrawing bureaucratic fangs would be better.

“We’re a town of 10,000 people,” Riverton City Administrator Steven M. Weaver told me by phone. “People in Washington, D.C., issue this ruling and expect to roll right over us.” He noted that several court cases over the years have established “what we’ve been doing for the last 109 years.”

State officials are just as adamant.

“What’s problematic here is you have a regulatory agency, the EPA, coming without notice to the state and saying, ‘We’re redefining the boundaries of the reservation, and in doing so, we’re redefining the boundaries of state jurisdiction,’” Gov. Matthew H. “Matt” Mead told the Wyoming Press Association on Jan. 17.

He and state Attorney General Peter K. Michael have made it clear that Riverton is still under the jurisdiction of Wyoming, Fremont County and city laws.

In a 24-page petition, the state has asked the EPA to reconsider and to stay its order. The EPA has until Wednesday to respond, and if they don’t, or if they reject the petition, the state will sue in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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