PABLO – By now, Vern Clairmont suggested, the federal government ought to have figured out what happens when it fails to live up to the Indian trust responsibilities it agreed to long ago.
Clairmont, financial director of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, was one of several tribal officials who met Friday morning with U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
Like most tribes, the CSKT have taken on the role of fulfilling many of the federal government’s trust responsibilities to Indian people under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975.
And, like most tribes, Clarimont said, they’ve been severely hampered in carrying them out by Congress’ many budget impasses and sequestration.
“We’ve taken on the role and responsibility, but we don’t get the funding,” Clairmont told Daines. “We still have the responsibility, as the federal government fully understands given the settlements it’s paid out recently. Our trust responsibility doesn’t go away with fewer dollars.”
“That’s how broken things are,” Daines said of Washington, D.C. “The House has been passing budgets, but the Senate just passed one for the first time since iPads were invented.”
The federal government has agreed to multibillion-dollar settlements with tribes in recent years over its mismanagement of income from Indian trust assets.
The freshman congressman wanted to know where sequestration, and continuing resolutions – legislation used to fund parts of government when a formal appropriations bill has not been signed into law by the end of the congressional fiscal year – have hurt the most on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Health care, and protecting tribal trust assets such as natural resources, Clairmont said.
Indian Health Service funding on the reservation was reduced by more than $700,000 in 2013, according to the tribes, and Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded programs – which include trust resource management, law enforcement and social services – were slashed by more than $300,000.
“Sequestration and the issue of continuing resolutions are killers for us,” Clairmont said. Tribes find out far too late in the year how much funding they’ll be getting for such areas, he added, and it’s not enough to do what the federal government agreed to in treaties.
If it continues, Clairmont said, “The result will be unemployment. You’ll take what we’ve accomplished and roll it back pretty quickly.”
Jim Durglo, head of CSKT’s Forestry Department, said fuel reduction programs on tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs lands are funded at 30 percent of what U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands are.
The forests often abut.
“As if wildfires respect borders,” said Daines, fresh off a tour of the Lolo Creek Complex earlier Friday morning.
Daines said fire officials there told him that forest fuel reduction programs were a key to being able to hold lines on that fire, which became the nation’s top-priority wildfire after it exploded earlier this week.
“We’re crossing the $1 billion mark for fighting fires (across the nation) this year,” Daines said. “We spent $120 million fighting fires in Montana last year.”
Fuel reduction programs cost big money, he said, but it costs a lot more to fight wildfires.
“It’s the old story, an ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure,” Daines said. “And you have to consider the environmental impact (of fires) on water and air. Folks back in D.C. don’t have to breathe this smoke. We do.”
The Obama administration has requested significant cuts in the Department of Interior’s Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program – from $210 million in 2010, to less than $96 million in 2014.
U.S. Sen Max Baucus, D-Mont., has already written Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to complain that its Hazardous Fuels Priority Allocation System is biased against land the department holds in trust for Indian tribes, adding, “It has turned out to be a system that is incomprehensible to almost all parties involved with fighting fire on Interior Department lands.”
Daines also heard from CSKT’s Department of Human Resource Development head, a member of its Economic Development office, its acting Tribal Lands Department head and the new president of Salish Kootenai College.
Adequate funding for various programs was a part of most every conversation.
When the subject of Kicking Horse Job Corps came up, Daines indicated he’s impressed with results the U.S. Job Corps is delivering.
Daines visited Trapper Creek Job Corps outside Darby earlier this week.
“Nothing speaks louder than hearing young people tell their stories,” Daines said. “The Job Corps really sells itself. Our universities are graduating people who are 50 percent unemployed and often deep in student debt. In Job Corps, students are coming out with skills that are immediately employable.”
Teresa Wall-McDonald, acting Tribal Lands Department head, told Daines about concerns with the Department of Interior Land Buy Back Program, which she said does not take into account the higher property values often found on the Flathead Reservation as compared to other reservations.
Janet Camel of the tribes’ Economic Development Office told Daines how small-business grants awarded by CSKT to tribal members, who must provide matching funds, have led to 29 businesses opening or expanding on the reservation since 2011, providing 67 jobs.
Camel also said CSKT is considering developing a business park north of Pablo; the hitch is that because Pablo water storage is limited, fire insurance rates are high. Insurance for S&K Electronics, she said, has gone up $30,000 a year because of it.
SKC President Robert DePoe III, who’s been on the job for just a month, touted the track record of tribal colleges compared to other public and private colleges, and universities that are better funded.
Daines said he’d like to return to Pablo and tour the SKC campus on a future trip back to Montana.