- - Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Residents of Riverton, a quiet town of 11,000 in Wyoming, were shocked to wake up one recent morning to learn they were now Indians. Sort of. Their town had been taken over by an Indian tribe without a bullet or arrow being fired. This hasn’t happened since Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, having put the torch to the South, arrived to take on the Nez Perce. Yet no battles took place last month. The Environmental Protection Agency simply approved an application by the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes to declare the newly expanded tribal region henceforth be treated “as a state.”

Thousands of Wyoming palefaces were swept into Indian jurisdiction, without treaty or authorization of Congress. Riverton residents didn’t even get any beads.

Matt Mead, the Republican governor, is furious. “This decision goes against 100 years of history,” he said, “involving over a million acres of land. It is not a decision that should come from a regulatory agency. I believe the EPA is in the wrong and I will not honor its decision.”

In 1905, Congress set the boundaries for the Wind River Reservation based on treaties worked out over the course of two decades. The EPA unilaterally declared that the treaty, which set out that the tribes would “surrender, forever and absolutely” the land in question, didn’t really mean what the words plainly say. The government bureaucrats, not necessarily distinguished in constitutional law, came up with a convoluted interpretation that under the Clean Air Act, the tribes and not the state can now dictate environmental policy in the disputed region.

Wyoming’s top law enforcement official says the EPA’s nonsensical argument is no accident. The agency has been collaborating with the tribes to cook up this land grab for five years, but it dropped the announcement of the seizure with a mere 60 days’ notice. “EPA not only reached the wrong conclusion,” says state Attorney General Peter K. Michael, “but the agency also employed a fundamentally unfair and skewed process to the detriment of the State and its citizens, in pursuit of a predetermined objective.”

Riverton Mayor Ronald O. Warpness has been fielding phone calls from constituents worried that they have been moved into “Indian country” through bureaucratic fiat. He has tried to reassure them that the dispute will be fought in the courts and until then nothing has changed.

This odd dispute takes place in the context of a federal government that has become the single largest landowner in the United States. Successive administrations, especially the liberal ones, declare new “monuments” that take enormous swaths of land from private hands. The government now holds the deeds to more than 630 million acres, nearly 28 percent of all available land in the country. This includes half of Wyoming. Riverton residents never asked to be part of an Indian tribe, and the federal government has no business putting them there. We haven’t seen such corrupt trading with the Indians since John Wayne rode the range.

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