CHEYENNE, Wyoming — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it is staying its recent decision that lands around Riverton remain legally Indian Country.
The federal action follows recent requests from the state of Wyoming and the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes that share the Wind River Indian Reservation that the EPA stay its decision.
The EPA in December announced it had concluded that a 1905 federal law opening more than 1 million acres of the Wind River Indian Reservation to settlement by non-Indians didn't extinguish the land's reservation status.
The federal agency's conclusion prompted sharp criticism from Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and the promise of a state legal challenge that's apparently still pending. State officials have said they intend to file an appeal of the agency's decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver this month.
Mead said Thursday that he regards the agency's decision as good news for the state.
"I asked for this and I appreciate the EPA's action," Mead said. "We will continue to pursue our challenge in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals because this stay does not change the court's deadlines. This action provides more certainty for all citizens of the state until the court can rule or the EPA reconsiders its decision."
The EPA addressed the boundary issue when it granted a request from both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes to treat their joint reservation as a separate state under the federal Clean Air Act.
Speaking last month in Laramie, Mead said he understands the tribes' desire to be more involved in environmental regulation. He said the state and the tribes long have disagreed over the legal status of the disputed land but his real concern was with overreaching by the EPA.
However, Mead said redefining the reservation boundaries should fall to Congress, not the EPA. Declaring that Riverton and surrounding country was legally Indian Country called into question state jurisdiction over environmental regulation, education and law enforcement issues, Mead has said.
Darrell O'Neal, Sr., chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, wrote to EPA Regional Administrator Shaun McGrath last week saying that tribal members were experiencing increased hostility directed at them as a result of the EPA decision. O'Neal characterized the state's predictions about the effect of the agency's decision on state programs as "nonsense," but said the tribe had no objection to a stay.
O'Neal said Thursday that the stay offers a chance to focus on creating understand instead of conflict.
Dean Goggles, member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said Thursday that the state has been telling people in Riverton that the EPA decision will cause chaos. "It's nonsense," he said. "The stay allows us time to talk to each other without the panic Wyoming has been trying to create."
McGrath, in a letter to the state and tribes on Thursday announcing the stay, said that holding off on implementing the decision will allow for an orderly resolution either through the courts or through reconsideration by the EPA.
"The stay will apply to the City of Riverton, among other areas," McGrath stated. "EPA will continue to work with the Tribes to move forward on Clean Air Act activities in those areas that are not disputed by the State of Wyoming."
"EPA is staying the Tribes' implementation of Clean Air Act planning and monitoring activities in areas challenged by the State of Wyoming and looks forward to the orderly resolution of the Wind River Reservation boundaries in the courts," McGrath said. "We are encouraged that this approach will help alleviate tensions in areas of disagreement while providing all parties an opportunity to work together to implement EPA's decision and ensure environmental protection."