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Law professors side with Wyoming tribes in boundary dispute pitting state against EPA

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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — Eight law professors from around the country are seeking to get involved in a legal dispute over whether Riverton and surrounding lands remain legally part of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The professors, all specialists in Indian law, are seeking to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the state of Wyoming's pending appeal of a recent decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The state objects to the federal agency's determination that Riverton and surrounding lands kept its legal status as Indian Country despite congressional action 100 years ago opening the area to settlement by non-Indians.

The EPA made the determination as it granted an application from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, which share the reservation, to treat them in a manner similar to a state for purposes of administering the federal Clean Air Act.

Wyoming officials have said that a final finding that the disputed lands are Indian Country would affect state services to non-Indian residents there. The state filed sworn statements from a range of state officials early last year when it asked the appeals court to overturn the EPA's 2013 ruling.

Finding Riverton and the surrounding area remained Indian Country would affect matters of law enforcement jurisdiction and taxation in the area, the state officials said. They also listed effects on state services including inspections of restaurants and school cafeterias.

The eight professors filed papers last week asking the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to allow them to file a friend-of-the-court brief to argue that the Wyoming officials misstated the facts. Contrary to the state's position, the professors maintain that a court declaration that Riverton remains Indian Country wouldn't have much effect on jurisdictional issues for non-Indians. They say more than 100 municipalities exist in similar circumstances around the country.

The professors state Wyoming officials bizarrely expressed fear that reservation status would mean that the disputed lands would no longer be part of the state. "These concerns are without foundation," they say, pointing out that notaries, corporations and election officials can continue to rely on state law in municipalities elsewhere on Indian land.

Bethany Berger, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, is one of those seeking to file the friend of the court brief. She declined comment Monday, saying they have a policy of not commenting on the pending litigation.

Riverton and Fremont County governments are also opposing the federal agency's boundary determination. The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes are supporting the EPA decision.

Fremont County opposed the request from the law professors to get involved with the case. The court on Monday gave the county until next week to file a brief explaining why.

County Attorney Patrick J. LeBrun said Monday the county opposes the professors participating because the current parties are well represented and capable of litigating the issues in court. "The people with the stake are always, in my opinion at least, are the best to present the case," he said. "And I haven't seen any information to cause me to believe that this case should be any different."

The state of Wyoming didn't oppose the professors' request to be heard in the case. Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael was not available for comment, his office said Monday.

Dean Goggles, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said Monday that the professors' arguments discredit arguments by Wyoming and others that determining Riverton remains in Indian Country would have negative consequences.

"Reservation diminishment cases are generally fact-specific," Goggles said. "However, this case could have broad ramifications in the area of reservation boundary precedents."

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