President-elect Trump’s Native American Affairs Coalition announced plans this week to kill a federal policy that prevented tribal councils from engaging in resource development on tribal lands, a welcome shift from the Obama administration's policy of broadly limiting resource development on federal land.
The decision of whether to allow businesses that could have serious negative side effects to locate in a community matters to people. It affects their quality of life, their job prospects, and the tax base, which determines local services available to them. These businesses have mostly geographically limited “neighborhood effects,” local problems that require local decision-making to get right.
Depending on the circumstances, different factors influence the decisions that communities might reach. In some situations, it might be better to wait for another generation before exploiting a mineral deposit, so that better technology will exist to do the job more efficiently and yield a higher value to the tribe. Some tribes are in good financial shape today, while others are not. Some want more public services, which can only be provided by more economic activity and a broader tax base, while others want a cheaper government that does less.
For that reason, it should be the tribal communities surrounding those businesses that decide whether to engage in resource development. It should not be a distant federal government. It’s communities that will feel the effect of a decision to allow a mine or oil well. It’s communities that will feel the effect of a decision to value land for its ability to create jobs and economic opportunity, or to preserve its natural qualities. The important thing is that people have a choice rather than having that choice dictated to them by Washington.
The consequences that can arise from a federal effort to run roughshod over local rights are on flagrant display this week in North Dakota, where 10,000 people have been protesting an easement authorized by the Army Corps of Engineers for construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. The scene should serve as a final impetus for inspiring lawmakers to reform the way in which tribal land is managed.
Local control is not without precedent. The Southern Utes of Colorado have turned drilling on their lands into a lucrative business. At the other end of the spectrum, last year the Canadian 3,600 member Lax Kw’alaams tribe rejected a $1 billion offer for the right to build a natural gas terminal on part of their lands. Both are reasonable choices made by local groups of a few thousand people, and they show the potential broadband of options available to tribes that hold valuable resources or lands
Changing the status quo where every resource development project on tribal lands is a federal affair will not be simple. It will mean some real devolution of power, if not land ownership. The final decision on land use decisions would need to be transferred to the tribes, where ability to the federal government to step in is limited to preventing unconstitutional decisions.
With powers devolved, tribe members would be charged with holding their governments accountable for land use decisions, just like local voters nationwide. For more than a century, the federal government has been making one-size fits all land use decisions on behalf of tribes. This has naturally led to conflicts that devolution could end. With the pain of wrong decisions falling on tribal government, decisions would end up being more reflective of the median tribe members.
Nick Zaiac is a policy analyst at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His research focuses on infrastructure, local government, and regulatory issues.
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