New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman should be lauded for co-authoring legislation that would grant American Indian tribes more flexibility in how they manage natural resource development on reservations and trust lands. Handled responsibly, increased development of natural resources will bring more prosperity to often impoverished reservations, enhance tribal self-reliance and reduce American dependence on energy imports.
And if that’s an admirable goal for those living on Indian reservations, isn’t it an equally worthy goal for Americans who don’t? Shouldn’t we seek similar flexibility, and freedom from red tape, for federal land managers trying to cope with a forest fuels crisis, disease and insect infestations and other byproducts of lands policy paralysis in Washington?
Indian trust lands account for roughly 11 percent of the nation’s onshore oil and natural gas production, and 11 percent of the coal produced in the United States in the past 20 years. The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that almost 90 reservations hold some potential for developing oil, gas, coal, coalbed methane, wind and geothermal energy. “It is clear that Indian tribes with substantial energy resources and high unemployment rates have a critical interest in enhancing their participation in the development of energy resources as well as providing electrical services to their reservation communities,” Bingaman said earlier this year.
Theoretically, tribal trust lands are subject to the same regulations governing resource extraction and development on all other U.S. public lands. In practice, tribes have been granted a bit more latitude in how they manage their lands, in a bow to claims of tribal sovereignty.
And in recent years, while many supposedly multiple-use public lands were locked away from resource development (usually to “protect” them from evil industries that supply such horrible things: wood products, fossil fuels and strategic minerals upon which a modern industrial society depends), Indian tribes have become more creative in managing their lands in ways that balance economic development with environmental safeguards.
In doing so, they have disproved the notion that resource development and environmental protection are irreconcilable — much to the embarrassment of those who reflexively portray any act of resource extraction from public lands as a rape of the Earth and cave-in to industry.
Some tribes have even taken the lead in demonstrating how active resource management can benefit both people and nature. The Menominees of northern Wisconsin won national recognition for managing forests in ways that generated lumber sales and benefitted the tribe financially and, yes, created a thriving wildlife habitat.
Other tribes would walk similar paths if granted the freedom to do so.
Naturally, most major environmental groups seem skeptical of Bingaman’s legislation. They have made their typically condescending arguments that tribes aren’t savvy enough to manage their lands as they see fit, and will fall easy prey to industries bent on pillaging their resources.
“You end up with closed-door deals that send the money to a private company and leaves the tribe with a trashed landscape,” a representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council told one Denver newspaper on Tuesday.
Liberals may pay lip service to the idea of tribal sovereignty. They love to hold up Indians as paragons of stewardship virtues who are somehow more closely connected to Earth than non-Native Americans. Plus they regularly draw attention to Indians’ status as victims who need help in achieving self-sufficiency.
Yet when a proposal comes along that will empower tribes to make their own land management decisions, these same liberal environmentalists come off as condescending and paternalistic as the worst Indian agents of old.
A respite from strangulating federal red tape will benefit tribes seeking energy self reliance, economic development and land management policies tailored to their circumstances. It can be done in an environmentally responsible way. But more than that, we’d like to see the same flexibility and freedoms granted to all federal land agencies, for the benefit of Indian and non-Indian alike.