Resource rules should affect all

We applaud New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman 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.
But if that’s an admirable goal for those living on Indian reservations, isn’t it an equally worthy goal for Americans who don’t? And shouldn’t we be seeking 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 that’s been produced in the United States in the past 20 years. And 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 stated 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. But 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 being locked away from resource development (usually in the name of “protecting” them from the evil industries that supply the wood products, fossil fuels and strategic minerals upon which a modern industrial society depends), tribes have become more creative in managing their lands in ways that balance economic development with environmental safeguards.
In doing so, they’ve been disproving 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. And in fact, some tribes have taken a lead in demonstrating how active resource management can benefit both people and nature.
The Menominee tribe of northern Wisconsin has won national recognition for managing forests in ways that generate lumber sales, and benefit the tribe financially, while creating a thriving wildlife habitat. And other tribes would walk similar paths if granted the freedom to do so.
Naturally, most major environmental groups seem skeptical of the legislation, making the 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 play lip service to the idea of tribal sovereignty. They love to hold up Indians as paragons of stewardship virtues, and somehow more closely connected to the earth than non-Native Americans. And they regularly draw attention to their 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 suddenly come off as condescending and paternalistic as the worst Indian agents of old.
We believe a respite from strangulating federal red tape will benefit tribes seeking energy self reliance, economic development and land management policies tailored to their circumstances. And we believe 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 all, Indian and non-Indian alike.