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Eye On Boise

Tribes’ tale sends quiet chill over public-lands transfer hearing

The hearing room at the state Capitol went silent this morning as the first scheduled speaker, Chairman Nathan Small of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, addressed the Federal Lands Interim Committee about the prospect of Idaho trying to take title to federal public lands within the state. “The tribes unequivocally oppose this notion,” Small said. “The wealth of public lands within Idaho’s borders is intended to protect the way of life … from generation to generation,” he said. It’s not, he said, to be sold off to private entities, or used for corporate interests - those who would "come out, rip, rape and run - because that's what they do when they get done with a place, a piece of property, is they run." He noted that 17 phosphate mines in eastern Idaho are Superfund sites. "Are you proud of that legacy?" he asked. "Everybody made a few dollars at the time."

The United States, he told the lawmakers, “entered into a solemn treaty with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and peoples,” guaranteeing them the “off-reservation fishing, hunting and gathering rights which we continue to exercise on unoccupied lands of the United States.” Idaho doesn’t have the resources to manage all those lands, Small said, even in normal years, let alone in extreme fire seasons. They don’t have the “massive reserves of oil or natural gas” that could fund such management. “This is not sound legislation, and it is not a good path for our state and those of us who have lived here since time immemorial,” Small told the committee. “It’s essential that we have that opportunity to leave the reservation to hunt, to fish, to gather and to protect our cultural sites out there. Our treaty says you shall have those rights so long as you make the reservation your permanent home. We didn’t give up nothing out there other than to live on the reservation. We retain all of those rights.”

Small noted that his tribes’ off-reservation cultural sites “are anywhere from hundreds to 12,000 to 14,000 years old. We have been here. Prior to the state becoming a territory, prior to the state becoming a state, we lived here, through all of those times.”

He told of how the Sho-Ban people were scattered, and once lived in what’s now the Boise valley. They ended up at the Fort Hall Reservation, the Duck Valley Reservation, and other reservations in Oregon. “They came under the present locations that they were moved to, or where they ran to,” he said. “You’ve got to understand that when we made that treaty … it means that we would have that opportunity to continue to come out into these areas, as long as these lands were under some type of federal control or unoccupied lands of the United States. We feel that this notion to transfer it all to the state is going to diminish that right that we have made with the United States.”

Officials of the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce tribes sounded similar concerns about their treaty rights and future management of public lands in Idaho. Helo Hancock of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe noted that only the federal government can transfer the lands. “If the federal government is going to transfer title to any lands, they should be transferred back to their rightful owner, which would be Indian tribes,” he said. The legislation calling for a transfer to the state, he said, is “very troubling, particularly to the tribes.”

The interim committee is also scheduled to hear today from a panel of sportsmen and wildlife interests; from a panel representing grazing interests; and from a panel representing environmental interests. Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, noted that the panel is scheduled to continue meeting for the next year and a half before making any decision. “I’d just remind the people that are here that this is an ongoing process,” he said. “We’re going to be here for over another year from now going over this. … Whatever our outcome is, hopefully it will be very deliberative.”

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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