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Kearns and Sons

County objects to federal acquisition of tribal land

 

By Michael Howell

The Ravalli County Commissioners decided last week to register their objection to the proposed acquisition of 58 acres of land by the federal government, called the Medicine Tree Property, located south of Darby. The land is currently owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) who purchased it in 1998. The Bureau of Indian Affairs proposes that the federal government take possession of the land and hold it in trust for the use and benefit of the Tribes.

Commissioner Ron Stoltz thinks it’s just a way to avoid paying taxes. The county received a letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs Flathead Agency earlier this month asking for the County’s comments upon the proposed land transfer. Stoltz made a motion to send a letter objecting to it. He said later that the county was going to lose $808 annually in taxes on the property and there would be no public benefit that he could see.

According to unapproved minutes of the meeting, Commissioner J.R. Iman stated the letter should include reference to the loss of the annual taxes and that no benefit was shown to the citizens of Ravalli County for this acquisition. He said the letter should also reflect the fact that it reduces private land ownership in the county when 72% is already owned by federal and state agencies. He also raised a question about the fate of the house that is currently being rented out and questioned if there was access to the total acreage.

Planning Board Chairman Jan Wisniewski, speaking as an individual, wondered why the Tribes would want to trade their sacred ground to the government. He said that he would like his property removed from the tax rolls, too. He wondered about how it would affect things if and when the highway was widened and whether there were associated water rights on the property.

There was no member of CSKT present at the deliberations.

Robert McDonald, Communications Director for CSKT, told the Star by phone that since the time that treaties were made and reservations formed, the federal government has held tribal lands in trust for the use and benefit of the Indians. Then, over the years, land was privatized and allotments were continually being divided amongst heirs over generations. Now, according to McDonald, tribes across the country are trying to put lands back into the Trust. He said over the past three and half years, the CSKT has placed 104 different properties into Trust.

“Only four of those are off the Reservation,” said McDonald. “Two of those have been challenged by the local county government, one in Ravalli County and one in Lincoln County.”

He said in both instances the Tribes’ interest in the land and in placing it in Trust is related to sacred places, the Medicine Tree and Kootenai Falls, located off the reservation.

“Transferring lands into Federal Trust is just a routine procedure for us in our ongoing efforts to rebuild Tribal lands to protect our resources and our sacred places,” said McDonald.

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