- Associated Press - Thursday, May 29, 2014

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A U.S. House committee approved a proposed coal swap involving Montana’s Northern Cheyenne Tribe on Thursday despite lingering concerns that the value of the exchange has not been fully quantified.

The Committee on Natural Resources approved the Northern Cheyenne Lands Act by a voice vote, sending the measure to the full House.

The measure from Montana Republican Rep. Steve Daines seeks to fix a mistake made in 1900, when the government expanded the Northern Cheyenne reservation but failed to acquire the underlying minerals.

The bill would give Houston-based Great Northern Properties tracts containing 112 million tons of publicly-owned coal. In exchange, the tribe would regain control from Great Northern an estimated 117 million tons of coal beneath its southeastern Montana reservation.


The bill also puts into federal trust 635 acres of tribally owned land in South Dakota and 932 acres in Montana. The tribe has long sought to protect its land by keeping it in federal trust for the benefit of its members. Another provision would transfer about $5 million to the tribe from a trust fund that was established as part of a 1992 water-rights settlement between the tribe and the U.S.

A similar Senate bill sponsored by Montana U.S. Sen. John Walsh is awaiting a hearing.

Daines said in prepared remarks Thursday that his measure upholds the government’s relationship with the Northern Cheyenne. He said it gives the tribe more flexibility to address widespread poverty and an unemployment rate of about 60 percent.

The ranking Democrat on the House committee, Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio said there was no way to know if the exchange is fair because the value of the properties has not been assessed.

“It could far exceed that value or, who knows, maybe it’s less,” DeFazio said. “That’s not the proper way to go forward with an exchange of lands.”

No appraisals are planned, according to Daines‘ office and Northern Cheyenne Tribal Administrator William Walks Along.

“We remain optimistic that hopefully the concerns raised by (DeFazio) are not going to kill this bill,” Walks Along said, adding that an appraisal could take two years or more.

An earlier version of the legislation from former Sen. Max Baucus stalled and ultimately died last Congress. It would have given Great Northern significantly more coal than the tribe received, a lopsided arrangement that drew opposition from the U.S. Department of Interior and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.