Under a law passed in 1994, tribal governments are receiving non-competitive contracts to manage federal lands that have "geographic, historical, or cultural significance" to certain tribes. The first of hundreds of funding agreements, for land in a National Wildlife Refuge bordering the Artic National Wildlife Refuge to turn over major scientific and management duties was quickly ratified on April 30, 2004--only 2 weeks after the close of the comment period, and despite public the 98% of comments protesting the agreement.
The Interior Department is currently negotiating an agreement to turn over National Bison Range in Montana to tribes to manage with funding cut from US Fish and Wildlife Service budgets. According to the Federal Register, also being considered for turnover are 41 national refuges, 34 national parks and 15 federal water projects and hundreds of millions of acres. Tribes in the Montana and Alaska instances readily admit they do not have the staffing and are not qualified to handle the management of the still-wild federal lands, and there have been no Environmental Impact Studies to analyze the impacts. Even more disturbing, the no-compete contracts are being negotiated in secret with little or no public review.
Furthermore, under proposed HB 950 introduced by Rep. Don Young (AK), all national wildlife refuges AND national parks in Alaska would be turned over to various Indian tribes for management and budget allocations. Indications are that the tribes in this case and others will grant permits for oil and gas exploration and drilling.
At issue is whether the tribes are qualified to be caretakers of our wild public lands, no oversight of taxpayer dollars carved from public lands agency budgets, loss of federal land management jobs, the breadth and scope of assumed responsibilities, lack of opportunity for and rejection of public involvement and no National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance. Once again, federal agencies are finding innovative ways to shirk their responsibility to American citizens in protection of national lands.
There is a critical need for concerned members of the public to make their opinions known on the National Bison Range agreement, in what amounts to an administration test case. Number count, as evidenced in the Alaska case in April, US Senators Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, both of Alaska, along with Rep. Young, made it clear that they would only reconsider their support of the agreements if they received thousands of individual objection letters. The 195 objection letters had less weight than the 5 support letters, and letters from sportsman and hunting groups protesting the action were discounted entirely.
Please send an email to the addresses below. Since agencies are increasingly discounting "form" letters, please take the time to personalize your letter. Points you may want to include are:
*Don't privatize or commercialize our public lands under the Indian Self-Determination Act.
*Secret negotiations surrounding the turnover of operational budgets and jobs at the National Bison Range Complex and for other public lands are inappropriate. The non-competitive contracts could have a profound impact on all 544 national wildlife refuges and all national parks.
*Thousands of conservation leaders, sportsmen and environmentalists from around the United States have sent e-mails and written letters objecting to the agreements but have been ignored. Citizen participation must be considered.
*The National Bison Range Complex was established as one of the first of 53 national wildlife refuges under President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 and the land belongs to ALL Americans, not a few.
*The National Bison Range contract would give up to 11 of the 18 jobs and almost half the $1.4 million operational budget of the complex to a local Indian government that demands more money for the jobs performed and less work performed, by their own testimony to the U.S. Senate, Department of Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials obtained under Freedom of Information requests.
*The secretly negotiated, non-competitive contracts being proposed throughout the United States is the Bush Administration's ongoing effort to privatize and commercial public lands for natural resource plundering.
*Taxpayers will foot the bill with no oversight of the budgets or management performance.
* U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, with decades of experience at the National Bison Range Complex, will be fired or transferred if they don't accept one-year temporary contracts with tribes. Jobs involved in the turnover include administrative, biological (including habitat management), fire control, maintenance and visitor information services at the visitor's center - all vital jobs at any national wildlife refuge.
*"Inherently federal" jobs, protected under the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 and succeeding amendments to this Act sponsored by U.S. Sen. John McCain in 1997, will be turned over to a contractor with no loyalties to the National Wildlife Refuge System in violation of the Act and its amendments.
Comments must be sent by Oct. 11, 2004, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at firstname.lastname@example.org . After Oct. 11, no further public involvement will be allowed. Since Congress will make the final decision to accept or reject this contract with the local Indian government, anyone sending comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must send copies to their local U.S. Senators and Congressmen, Sec. of Interior Gale Norton at Gale_Nortor@ios.doi.gov, FWS Director Steve Williams at Steven_A_Williams@fws.gov and Deputy Sec. of Interior Steve Griles at Steve_Griles@ios.doi.gov .
Although Grand Canyon National Park is not under immediate threat, the ramifications for any public lands bordering tribal lands are clear. Strong public outcry against the currently considered contracts and the secrecy in instituting them will result in superior protection of those lands.