Many of Doug Thompson’s constituents are nervous. Some are angry. More still are confused. The soft-spoken Wyoming cattle rancher has been ranching in vast Fremont County since 1970, and has been on the County Commission for 14 years, serving as the chair for a decade now. Despite the brutal winters, it is a quiet and beautiful area, where hard-working descendants of pioneers, alongside Native Americans, have eked out a meager living from the land for over a century, mostly in agriculture, tourism, and energy. Slightly more than 40,000 people live there, spread out across a county that is about the size of Vermont.
Thompson’s ranch, located some 45 miles from the local Indian reservation, is not in jeopardy right now. But the same cannot be said, at least not with any degree of certainty, for the rights of thousands of other citizens in the area, whose businesses, lands, self-government, access to water, and potentially even livelihoods may be under threat — at least if the Obama administration and its increasingly lawless Environmental Protection Agency get their way.
In December, defying established federal law and multiple U.S. court rulings, unelected bureaucrats at the EPA made Fremont County perhaps the most high-profile battleground in a quiet but disturbing assault taking place across much of the nation. Working with other departments, the EPA unilaterally purported to place the city of Riverton, Wyoming, inside the nearby Indian reservation’s boundaries — and more importantly, under the jurisdiction of tribal authorities for the Wind River Indian tribes. At least two smaller towns, Kinnear and Pavillion, were also decreed by the EPA to be within tribal borders.
Riverton is the largest town in Fremont County, home to more than one-fourth of the population and serving as the economic hub for the region. In 1905, Native Americans were paid and Congress passed a law opening up parts of the area to settlers, decreasing the size of the vast Indian reservation. By most accounts, relations between Native Americans and other county residents had generally been peaceful and friendly. As the federal government and the tribal governments it funds team up against non-tribal members, though, tensions are reportedly rising.
The boundary dispute that recently made headlines across America with the EPA ruling has been simmering quietly under the surface for years. Wyoming officials and experts say Congress settled the question more than a century ago — along with the courts in subsequent rulings. But the Obama administration, apparently not agreeing with the law or the courts, handed over more than a million additional acres and three non-Indian towns to the tribes with a simple decree.
“My contention is that this is a congressional call,” says Thompson, the rancher and County Commission chair. “It seems like under this current administration, they are trying to do all these things administratively, which is totally inappropriate. It’s not up to a political regime to do this. It’s a basic philosophical problem. The EPA should not be re-defining boundaries or subjecting citizens to a government that they have no formal say in — voting, access, and so on.”
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Photo at top: AP Images