PAWHUSKA — Rancher Dick Surber has trouble pinpointing what troubles him most about an Osage Nation proposal to create and regulate environmental standards for all of Osage County. Is it that the bill would override state and federal rules? Is it that non-Indian landowners would be forced to comply with tribal standards? Is it the provision to settle disputes in tribal court? Is it the proposed use of federal money to implement the plan? Surber and numerous other county property owners are concerned about the bill. However, they plan to boycott a series of public meetings scheduled by the tribe to discuss the measure. The cattlemen's reasoning: "We thought by going there to argue with them, we would somehow legitimize it or believe they had a leg to stand on.” The bill's author, Osage Congresswoman Faren Revard Anderson, said the measure was tabled Tuesday due to negative comments and an apparent lack of congressional support. However, the public hearings will still take place. Anderson said she introduced the bill at the request of the tribe's executive branch. Osage Chief Jim Gray didn't return calls seeking comment Tuesday.Comments
Tribe would have sole jurisdictionA few Oklahoma tribes have applied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be treated equally with states on certain environmental matters. The Pawnee Nation is the only one granted that status, and it is only for certain nonregulatory aspects of the Clean Water Act. The Osage proposal goes far beyond any other tribal environmental policy in Oklahoma. It would allow the tribe to set standards for Hulah Lake, Birch Lake, Bluestem Lake, Skiatook Lake, several municipal lakes and parts of Kaw Lake, Keystone Lake and the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. It also would establish procedures for issuing environmental permits, enforcing orders and conducting hearings on violations. It affects not only Osage County, but any land outside the county over which the tribe asserts governmental authority. The bill extends to anyone who lives or conducts business in Osage County. "All persons shall be deemed to have consented to the jurisdiction of the Osage Nation,” the bill states. The tribe's court system would have sole jurisdiction for settling disputes and alleged violations. The Osages still claim all of Osage County as their reservation, and at least one federal agency agrees. In 2005, the National Indian Gaming Commission determined that the Osages, unlike any other Oklahoma tribe, still maintained a reservation. EPA spokesman David Bary said his agency is unsure whether the Osages have a reservation.
Plan faces hurdlesIf Anderson's bill passes, the plan faces a likely court battle. That's because tribes must obtain the EPA's permission to run their own environmental programs. In addition, Oklahoma tribes must receive permission from the state of Oklahoma to receive treatment-as-state status, thanks to a so-called "midnight rider” that U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe placed on a transportation funding bill in 2005. Miles Tolbert, Oklahoma's secretary of the environment, declined to comment on the Osage proposal, citing a federal lawsuit concerning the tribe's jurisdictional boundaries. That lawsuit, filed by the tribe in 2001, asserts the tribe's contention that Osage County is its reservation, and that its employees who live in Osage County are exempt from paying state income taxes.
Light pollution claimedThe first page of Anderson's 53-page bill sets out several purposes for creating the Osage National Environmental and Natural Resources Act. One is to "protect the dark nights in order to see the stars.” Surber finds that language hypocritical. After all, he claims, the tribe's own casinos cause more light pollution than any other business in Osage County. Surber owns 2,500 acres and leases about 7,000 additional acres, all in Osage County. He and other Osage County cattlemen met Tuesday night to discuss what Surber called a "defense strategy.” The tribe has scheduled three hearings on the proposal. The first, set for 6 p.m. Thursday, is for tribal members. A second will be July 14 for county landowners, and the final one will be July 26 for oil and gas operators. Each will begin at 6 p.m. at the Wah-Zha-Zhi Cultural Center in Pawhuska. Osage County
Sovereignty Symposium begins todayThe Osage Nation's plan to regulate environmental matters within Osage County is certain to be discussed during the 20th annual Sovereignty Symposium in Oklahoma City. The two-day event begins this morning at the Cox Convention Center. Sessions include panel discussions on gaming, environmental issues and the ongoing dispute over the state-tribal tobacco compact. Several sessions deal with issues concerning tribes' sovereign immunity. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will be honored during a Thursday afternoon ceremony. Speakers during this afternoon's opening ceremony include Gov. Brad Henry, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins and Mark Plotkin, an author and conservation activist who was recently named by Smithsonian magazine as one of "35 Who Made a Difference.”