Rep. Don Young, chairman of a new House subcommittee on American Indian and Alaska Native affairs, says he will battle federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act that have derailed energy and economic development on tribal lands.
The Alaska Republican, who last week took the gavel of the Natural Resources Committee's new Indian and Alaska Native Affairs Subcommittee, said he would ensure federal environmental laws do not obstruct energy development for the nation's 565 federally recognized Indian tribes and that federal agencies live up to their trust obligations with native communities.
"They have not been adequately served by the federal government when it comes to trying to encourage their advancement," Young said in an interview with E&E Daily. "They've been deprived of developing their lands if they wish to do so."
Action is needed to loosen federal regulations and eliminate permitting steps that have stifled energy and economic development for tribes, Young said.
"Let's say you have a cattle ranch and you're supposed to be able to provide for your people on a reservation. The [gray] wolf is put on the Endangered Species Act and they're killing your cattle," Young said. "Wait a minute, that's great for someone in New York or California, but not for the tribe that wants to protect their cattle herd."
Young also criticized what he called duplicative federal regulations on Indian lands and accused federal agencies of employing regulators simply for the sake of creating jobs. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have complained for years that the Interior Department permitting process often slows energy development and discourages possible business investment.
"[Tribes] ought to be able to [develop energy] without what I call restrictions that are really uncalled for, or doing the double dipping as far as federal control," Young said. "We have so many people involved in these offices, and really, what are they doing? They are implementing regulatory law that is not voted upon that determines how people live."
The 20-term congressman and former full committee chairman would not elaborate on any specific legislative plans but said his chairmanship would be guided by the philosophy that tribes have not gotten a fair shake from the federal government.
He did, however, promise to reintroduce a controversial bill that would allow the transfer of thousands of acres of the Tongass National Forest to a Southeast Alaska native corporation for possible timber development. Proponents say the deal is the most equitable way for the federal government to meet its remaining obligations under a 1971 settlement ordering the return of about 375,000 federal acres to Sealaska, but critics argue that privatization of the lands will undermine efforts to shift forest management away from old-growth logging.
Attorneys for tribal organizations said they hope Young will pursue legislation that will help unlock major troves of renewable energy on reservations, as well as clear hurdles for development of conventional oil and gas.
"The old trust system creates a lot of red tape when trying to do any economic transaction," said John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians. "Businesses just don't want to wait around for three years while the Bureau of Indian Affairs gets its business done."
Dossett cited legislation from the last Congress that would allow tribes to oversee part of the surface leasing approval process normally reserved for Interior and a sweeping draft package by former Senate Indian Affairs Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that aimed to address some of the regulatory inequities tribes face in spurring development.
"Tribes now have a lot more capacity and they don't need the secretary to review every leasing operation," which include standard subleases in tribal office buildings, Dossett said.
Paul Moorehead, an attorney for Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP in Washington, D.C., said that while tribes are sovereign nations, they are also subject to environmental laws including ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal studies and public involvement for any energy project to take place.
"For the private surface landowner across the street from the tribe, NEPA doesn't apply," Moorehead said.
Moorehead, a former chief council for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, cited increased fees for drilling permits on public lands as another roadblock impeding energy development on tribal lands.
"Taken together they present a pretty formidable challenge to energy development on Indian lands," Moorehead said. "They are precisely the types of things that we hope Don Young's subcommittee will deal with in the next year or so."
Dan Kish, a senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research who worked for the Natural Resources Committee under Young's chairmanship, said the congressman has "always believed the government should live up to its obligation to Indians, but he's also a strong believer in self-determination."
"He also brings to this a certain sensitivity, a feeling both about the government's obligation to first Americans, if you will, as well as a belief that a lot of what we've been doing has been counterproductive," Kish said.
Young's late wife was Native Alaskan, and he has two native children and 14 native grandchildren. He taught fifth grade at a Native Alaskan school in the 1960s in Fort Yukon.
"Don has unique and personal experience with Native affairs over his many years serving the state of Alaska and his reputation in tribal communities and Native villages is well established," said Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) in a statement late last month. "He brings a wealth of knowledge to this position and will ensure that tribal issues receive the proper focus and attention."