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Northern Cheyenne block coal project

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BILLINGS, Mont.? The Northern Cheyenne Tribe has asked a federal court to block the development of the Otter Creek federal coal deposits until tribal concerns are addressed.

The tribe filed the complaint in Washington, D.C. to prevent Interior Secretary Gale Norton from granting Montana title to the coal deposits until she abides by all applicable laws.

The complaint was submitted to Federal District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson asking that the transfer be declared illegal and void because the secretary has not complied with the laws governing the transfer. The statutes included the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the secretary's fiduciary obligations to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

Jackson is the judge who initially handled the anti-trust case against Microsoft.

"Development of the Otter Creek coal resources would impose severe environmental, socio-economic and cultural impacts on the tribe and its members," said the complaint.

The tribe is also attempting to place a preferential hiring status as a condition on the coal transfer. Montana Gov. Judy Martz has said she would be more willing to negotiate if the preferential hiring status requirement were to be dropped, saying workplace preference is more appropriately resolved by whoever leases the land.

The tribe has not given up on a negotiated settlement and is not opposed to development, said Tribal President Geri Small. The complaint was filed to prevent Norton from thwarting a settlement by making an unannounced transfer, said Small.

Steve Chestnut, a Seattle attorney and legal representative of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe for over 30 years, said he is "reasonably optimistic" that a negotiated settlement can be reached. He is still pursuing injunctive relief to continue preventing the transfer, but is getting some favorable feedback from the state.

"We are keeping the pressure on, but are also focusing on the state committing to lease stipulations that address legitimate Cheyenne concerns," said Chestnut.

"Gov. Martz finds preferential hiring philosophically hard to swallow," said Chestnut of the tribe's economic concerns. Chestnut commented that the reservation is in a sparsely populated area and employment is a major concern.

The concerns were more than financial and include environmental and cultural issues that may affect Indians and non-Indians alike, said Chestnut.

Gov. Martz has said she intends to develop the coal and the tracts will be submitted for competitive bid as soon as the transfer is complete. The coal was promised to the state as compensation for a 1996 agreement that pre-empted the construction of the Crown Butte's New World gold mine.

Martz said in a July visit to Lame Deer that she would not support development of the project because of tribal members' concerns over the desecration of tribal burial grounds. Soon after, however, she said that no evidence had been presented to her showing that 'spiritually significant' areas would be disturbed.

The coal tracts are located southeast of Ashland in Powder River County. The 11 sections of land that make up the deposit contain 533 millions tons of high Btu, low-sulfur coal. An additional 615 tons are controlled by the Houston-based partnership of Great Northern Properties and 101 tons are under state school sections.