DENVER (AP) – A panel of federal judges in Denver heard arguments Tuesday over whether the Wyoming city of Riverton and surrounding lands remain legally Indian Country.
The legal outcome hinges on how the three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals interprets a 1905 decision by Congress that threw open a portion of the Wind River Indian Reservation to settlement by non-Indians. Private citizens purchased more than 170,000 acres before the sales halted 10 years later.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2013 ruled that, even though the land was sold, it remained legally part of the reservation. Wyoming and local governments appealed the EPA determination, saying Congress removed the lands from the reservation when it opened them to settlement.
If the EPA decision withstands the legal challenge from the state and local governments, Indians on the disputed lands would not be subject to state taxation or state criminal prosecution.
State officials have warned that Wyoming would lose jurisdiction over everything in Riverton, a city of 10,000, from law enforcement and taxation authority to school administration and even the right to inspect restaurants.
The EPA decision has sparked outrage among many non-Indians in the Riverton area. Some residents say they fear their property values will be diminished if the agency’s determination ultimately stands.
The EPA addressed the reservation boundary issue in approving an application from the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, which share the reservation, to be treated in a manner similar to a state under the Clean Air Act.
If it stands, the EPA’s approval of the application would require that the tribes get notice of activities within 50 miles of the reservation boundary that would affect air quality, EPA attorney Samuel Alexander said.
Wyoming Senior Assistant Attorney General Mike McGrady told the judges Tuesday that Congress in 1905 clearly intended to diminish the size of the reservation, legally terminating the land’s status as Indian Country.
Representatives of the tribes disagreed, saying the 1905 approach was different than what Congress had done previously in taking large pieces of the original reservation and directly paying the tribes for it.
“They did not intend to diminish this land,” said Don Wharton, an attorney representing the Eastern Shoshone tribe.
It is not clear when the court will issue its ruling. Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Dean Goggles said he looks forward to getting clarity.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.