WHITERIVER, Ariz. - When Arizona's largest wildfire, Rodeo-Chediski, roared through Fort Apache Indian reservation last June, President George W. Bush flew to the region to console the victims. He met for half an hour with White Mountain Apache Chairman Dallas Massey and promised federal disaster aid.
The Bush Administration attached such importance to the promise that then Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal A. McCaleb repeated it in a letter to the New York Times. "The government-to-government relationship between the White Mountain Apache and the United States is strong," wrote McCaleb. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set aside $20 million for aid to the Arizona counties and the Apache lands ravaged by the unprecedented blaze.
Yet more than six months after the fire and the presidential visit, as tribal land restoration efforts are in full swing, the White Mountain Apache have received none of the FEMA money.
"There are a lot of problems that we've encountered," said Assistant Tribal Attorney David Osterfield recently. "We have gone through the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) with our resolution to urge Congress to take another look at these policies, but we seemed to be at a stand-still."
Tribal officials say the roadblock comes from their concern to preserve government sovereignty and protect confidential information, including closely held economic data that might figure in on-going litigation.
The President's proclamation made federal aid available to the Apache Tribe under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act administered by FEMA.
Tribal officials decided to apply the federal aid toward the timber salvage led by the tribally owned Fort Apache Timber Company (FATCO). The tribal logging has been stymied by the impasse over the aid. (The tribe has also taken the unprecedented step of opening the reservation to salvage harvesting by private commercial logging companies, because of the immense acreage damaged and the short timeframe open to harvest timber before it rots.)
But FEMA officials defend their policies for federal trust lands.
"We respect their sovereignty as a tribal government and tribal nation. We have been working directly with them because of their special status," said Don Jacks, public affairs officer of the FEMA Washington D.C. office. "We must adhere to the letter of the law."
"We look at the tribe in a different way," said Alessandro Amaglio, FEMA Environmental Officer of the California office assigned to the Fort Apache disaster "When there is federal action, there are federal monies involved. We are responsible to make sure the appropriate process is followed because we are aware it's taxpayer money."
According to FEMA, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) sets forth procedures for an Environmental Assessment (EA) that addresses environmental concerns and details how FEMA funding will be used. Because taxpayers provide the funds, the NEPA documents seek public input and are open records.
Upon release, should a public party challenge the Environmental Assessment, an entire avenue is initiated by FEMA to answer public concerns. At this point, federal funds will remain undistributed to the tribe.
But Amaglio, who is supervising the NEPA requirements, doesn't believe that the assessment will be contested since the White Mountain tribe is under a disaster flag.
In this case, he said, the EA would be on limited release only to interested local parties associated with the wildfire disaster.
"I'm not going public with the document until the Tribe is comfortable. I think they understand it," said Amaglio. "We have to complete the process or we (FEMA) will face legal consequences."
He also said that no trust information would be released in the assessment. He reiterated that other confidential tribal documents described as "independent," referring to water lawsuits and other litigation that the tribe is pursuing, have not been requested for review.
When asked if tribal sovereignty is an issue in this case, FEMA maintains there is no issue.
But tribal officials say that federal disaster policies put tribes in an inferior position. In this policy and other federal regulations, Native tribes, although sovereign entities, cannot declare a state of emergency and therefore, are not eligible for federal disaster aid until a state or federal agency acts as the middleman. Usually when federal aid is disbursed to disaster declared areas, FEMA works through the state organizational hierarchy
FEMA maintains, however, that in tribal dealings it establishes a mutual government-to-government working relationship outlined in a 1998 Presidential order issued by President William Clinton.
The White Mountain tribe has been skeptical of the FEMA policy since the 1999 Rainbow fire, a "Wildland Urban Interface catastrophe" in the heart of the community.
The Rainbow fire tested FEMA's new tribal policies. A total of 17 homes were lost. Thousands were evacuated. Today, the ravaged landscape stands behind the communities as a daily reminder of what many in the White Mountain Apache Tribe believe was another questionable federal policy affecting tribal sovereignty.
As a result, "the tribe has requested a revision (of FEMA tribal policies) because we believe it sets the tribe to be inferior. It doesn't allow tribes to function as a sovereign, self-governing entity," said Tribal Attorney Osterfield.
The tribe still emphasizes that there are strings attached when federal aid becomes available for federal trust lands.
"We have a historical background urging Congress to review FEMA's effectiveness toward tribes, but there hasn't been local political support nor interest in helping us," said Osterfield. "But we will keep at it."