Group warns against tribes doing work on public lands

Posted: Monday, June 16, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) A public employees group says Alaskans should be wary of Bush administration negotiations that could turn over work on national parks and wildlife refuges to Native American tribes.

Grady Hocutt, working on the issue for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that contracting out work on public lands will create conflicts of interest, dilute the focus of federal agencies and threaten jobs held by federal employees.

An Alaska tribal group that wants to expand such contracting thinks arguments against it are misleading, and a legacy of a prejudiced view of tribes.

''It goes back, way back,'' said Randy Mayo, chairman of the Fort Yukon-based Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments. ''This is just a new form of how these agency folks view us that we're incompetent, that our role is to stand there with our hand out. We put up with it all the time.''

A federal law passed by Congress in 1994 requires the Interior Department's land management agencies to review their programs annually to see which could be contracted to tribes. Work that is ''inherently federal'' can't be contracted, but other programs with ''special geographic, historical or cultural significance'' to tribes are eligible.

Agency lands in Alaska, which often surround Native communities, are thus prime territory for such agreements, Hocutt said.

PEER believes a meeting recently between top Interior officials and representatives of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Washington, D.C., marks the beginning of a larger effort to reduce the federal work force. The two tribes want to take over some work on the National Bison Range in Montana.

''To my knowledge this is the first active effort that has gotten this far,'' said Hocutt, a retired refuge manager in New York and former 30-year employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hugh Vickery, the Interior Department spokesman, said PEER is overreacting to the bison range meetings. The law requires the Interior Department to discuss such proposals but does not mandate that any agreement be reached, he said.

''There's no predetermined result of that negotiation,'' he said.

As evidence that the Interior Department intends to increase contracting, PEER cited an April 5, 2002, notice in the Federal Register that lists departmental lands and functions that could be contracted to tribes through annual funding agreements.

In that notice, the National Park Service listed 10 Alaska park areas and the Fish and Wildlife Service listed all 16 Alaska refuges. In addition to construction and maintenance work, jobs that could be contracted out in parks include archaeological surveys, comprehensive management planning, and gathering baseline subsistence data. In refuges, the list is similar but also includes all law enforcement efforts, under cross-deputization.

Vickery said the notice did not reflect a new push by the Bush administration.

The only contracting proposal from an Alaska tribal group was rejected last year, Vickery noted. The application came from the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments.

John Stroebele, the Anchorage-based supervisor of northern Alaska refuges, said the Athabascan group had proposed to take over virtually all activities and employment at the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge below the level of manager.

''Part of the issue was substance and part was procedural,'' Stroebele said of the agency's decision to reject the proposal. ''We had 10 working days to respond, and so therefore we had no alternative but to say it wasn't in the best interest of the refuge to accept their proposal.''

The rejection is being appealed.

Mayo, chairman of the 10-tribe Athabascan group, said he signed off on a scaled-back proposal to Fish and Wildlife last week. ''It's pretty reasonable. A lot of those functions could be best served here on the ground,'' he said.

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