Environmental concerns now issue in wake of Creek ruling

Oklahoma recently requested the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant it continued authority for environmental regulations in areas deemed reservation land, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Congress never disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's reservation.

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision that Congress never dissolved the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's reservation in Eastern Oklahoma, tribes and the state have been examining the impact the case could have on regulatory issues in Indian Territory.

Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment Kenneth Wagner, appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in 2018, recently requested the Environmental Protection Agency grant the state authority over environmental programs within the historical boundaries of the Five Civilized Tribes, which contend the high court's ruling extends to all of its members (Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Nations). If granted, programs previously administered by the state - such as initiatives under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act- would continue to be operated by the various Oklahoma departments and boards.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler could grant the state authority pursuant to the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA) of 2005. If he decides to do so, it would apply to lands not held in trust by the federal government for tribes or tribal citizens.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and CN Secretary of Natural Resources Chad Harsha criticized the governor's invoking of state jurisdiction over environmental programs.

"Gov. Stitt's letter to the EPA invoking state jurisdiction over reservation lands within the Cherokee Nation is disappointing," the pair wrote in a joint statement. "Unfortunately, the governor's decision to revive this dated congressional act ignores the longstanding relationships between state agencies and the Cherokee Nation and our cooperative efforts to protect the environment in northeastern Oklahoma. All Oklahomans benefit when the tribes and state work together in the spirit of mutual respect, and this knee-jerk reaction to curtail tribal jurisdiction is not productive."

Others within the tribal community have expressed concern about the state's oversight of natural resources. One provision in SAFETEA, introduced by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., prevented tribes from implementing environmental regulations within their boundaries.

Meanwhile, Stitt has been applauded by the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, as well as the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma, for his request to the EPA.

OFB President Rodd Moesel said in a statement that the state's Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry continued regulatory function in the farming industry could provide consistent policies on Oklahoma's environment and ensure natural resources are properly monitored. He also said the state's other agencies that administer environmental regulations are "vitally important to a prosperous future for all Oklahomans."

"We are grateful to U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who had the foresight to author this language and secure congressional authorization of this regulatory approach back in 2005," said Moesel.

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