A lot of people in Washington like to hold up Native Americans as paragons of environmental virtue, and to talk up a storm about helping tribes finally step out from under Uncle Sam’s long shadow and stand on their own. But when tribes actually reach out for some of that autonomy, this talk often turns out to be lip service.
Float a proposal that would truly give tribes a bit more control over their own destinies and the special interests and bureaucrats that rule in Washington suddenly turn paternalistic, and begin treating tribes pretty much like they treat the rest of us — as if we can’t be trusted to manage our own affairs.
An excellent, if ironic case in point is presented by the special interest groups rising to oppose a plan that would allow the Salish and Kootenai tribes to jointly manage Montana’s National Bison Range with the federal government. Over the past year, an agreement has been negotiated between the tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for shared responsibility for the 18,500-acre reserve, beginning next year.
The pact, would permit tribes to manage wildlife, fire protection, maintenance and visitor services on the range. It stems from 1994’s Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which encourages tribes to partner with the Department of Interior on projects of “special geographic, historical and cultural significance.”
Now that a draft plan has been released, federal bureaucrats and environmental groups are throwing up obstacles for patently self-serving and condescending reasons. National wildlife refuge managers apparently oppose the arrangement for fear it could cost them staff and diminish their budgets and bureaucratic domains. They also worry that the teaming with tribes could highlight the benefits of privatization.
Some environmentalists apparently just don’t trust Indians to do the job. Perhaps they fear the Salish and Kootenai will butcher the herd and revert to swapping hides for glass beads and saddle blankets. None say this explicitly, of course; that would be politically incorrect. But a distrust of Native Americans is implicit in their strained rationalizations.
We saw something similar occur last year when the same sorts of groups raised doubts about a piece of legislation offered by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell that would have empowered tribes to more aggressively develop energy resources on reservations and trust lands.
Such paternalism is ironic, given that liberals often are most emphatic about portraying native peoples as having a special, even mystical connection with the environment. Yet these same Indians suddenly can’t be trusted to manage a herd of bison in partnership with federal agencies? That’s an odd incongruity.
In all, 19 wildlife refuges and 34 national parks are eligible for participation in similar programs. And that seems to worry some federal land management bureaucrats. “Some critics fear the move could lead to federal employees being displaced by tribal workers,” The Washington Post reported recently. “Others have voiced concern that the agreement could set a precedent for wider privatization of federal parks and reserves.”
But we see neither development as something to fear; both, in fact, should be encouraged for the sake of taxpayers and the tribes. We believe Native Americans can responsibly manage not just bison herds — something they were doing long before European settlers arrived — but more of their own affairs across the board. That can only occur when certain special interests stop paying lip service to Indian autonomy and seize opportunities such as this to support it.