Washington, DC — This week, Congress will consider legislation that directs the Interior Department to turn over many national parks, wildlife refuges and other operations to tribal governments under virtually permanent funding agreements, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). National parks such as Redwood, Glacier, Voyageurs, Olympic and the Cape Cod National Seashore are among the 57 park units in 19 states listed as eligible for tribal operation, as are 19 refuges in 8 states, including all of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and the National Bison Range in Montana.
This Thursday, November 8th, HR 3994 by Representative David Boren (D-OK) is slated for hearing before the full House Natural Resources Committee, just nine days after it was introduced. The committee is chaired by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), the bill’s lead co-sponsor.
Under its terms, tribes could take over any Interior programs “that are of special geographical, historical, or cultural significance to the Indian tribe” and receive federal payments covering all direct and indirect costs. The Interior Secretary would “establish programmatic targets” ensuring that “a significant portion” of federal jobs and programs are included. Assumption would be mandatory wherever a tribe “has a federally reserved right” in local fish, wildlife, water or minerals. In all other cases, Interior could refuse a tribe only where it can show a legal prohibition or “a significant danger or risk to the public health.”
Once executed, the tribal funding agreements could not be terminated for non-performance, but could only be suspended for “gross mismanagement” or “imminent jeopardy” to resources or public health. In addition, tribes would have the right to be fully paid in advance. Any savings or economies would go entirely to the tribe and future payments to the tribe could not be reduced.
“This bill would be like having a herd of Halliburtons permanently embedded inside Interior’s budget,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that tribal profit margins would be guaranteed and a tribe could stop work entirely if costs exceeded agreement estimates, yet still keep the federal payments. “It is clear from this measure’s incredibly one-sided terms that lobbyists are still writing at least some of the legislation before Congress.”
HR 3994 stipulates that tribal operation of parks and refuges would not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act or any other public reporting requirements. Moreover, no federal rules, guidance or policies would apply to programs under tribal funding agreements. In addition, tribes could move to waive any applicable regulation and could redesign programs or reallocate federal funds as they see fit.
“This bill does nothing to protect the wildlife and natural resources which are the very reasons we have these refuges and parks,” Ruch added. “In fact, these agreements would be cemented in place even when there is poor performance, rudeness to the public, sexual harassment, job discrimination or damage to the resource – so long as the damage is not ‘irreparable’ in the legalistic lingo of this proposal.”
Much of the bill, particularly the portions preventing termination of the funding agreements except in very limited, extreme circumstances, appears to be motivated by the experience at the National Bison Range. In December 2006, Interior abruptly cancelled a shared operation agreement with a local tribe citing abusive conduct and intimidation directed at U.S. Fish Wildlife Service employees, as well as substantial non-performance of many key tasks.
“This bill reads like a negotiating tactic to pressure Interior to renew the Bison Range funding deal,” Ruch concluded, noting that a review of the events at Bison Range by the Interior Office of Inspector General is reportedly ready to be released. “Congress should take a very hard look at what happened on the National Bison Range before signing away scores of our most treasured public lands in perpetuity.”