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Rep. Pombo: Sovereignty, a rich heritage and a bright future

Growing up on a cattle ranch in California, I spent long days working on the land. I remember rising before the sun and toiling well after it went down. As many of you know, the range demands endurance, respect for the earth, and a strong spirit. And like many of you, my family has spent generations not just making a living off the land, but building a life there.

It may surprise some to learn how much we share in common. I never aspired to a career in politics. But, when federal property and water rights decisions directly impacted me, my family and my neighbors, I was moved to action. It was my own experiences with many of the issues you battle on a daily basis that drew me to public service in the first place.

My political philosophy was shaped largely by my background as a rancher. I see eye-to-eye with Indian country on a wide range of issues including increasing economic opportunity, (which is the cornerstone for better education for children), encouraging better health care for elders, and empowering local communities to solve problems. As chairman of the committee in Congress charged with oversight of Indian affairs, my policies will continue to reflect these values.

The goal of federal Indian policy should be to maximize the ability of tribes to control their own destiny. This means increasing economic independence and working to preserve cultures to pass on to future generations. Your sovereign right to use your lands as you see fit should not be needlessly restricted by either bureaucrats in Washington or professional environmental activists from New York City and Hollywood who seek to take advantage of and manipulate tribes to fulfill their own agenda.

President Nixon heralded the beginning of a new era in which Indian self-determination without termination would be the guiding Indian policy of the federal government. This policy was embodied in the "Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act." Under this Act, tribes can opt to carry out by contract the services and programs the federal government provides to Native Americans.

While a good start, a number of tribes observed problems in implementing the Act, such as cumbersome federal regulations that prevented tribes from tailoring services and programs to suit the special needs of their members. Moreover, a 1987 investigative series published in the Arizona Republic revealed gross waste, fraud and mismanagement in the BIA.

These factors gave rise to a series of actions and laws establishing Tribal Self-Governance. Under Self-Governance arrangements, tribes effectively step into the shoes of the federal government and carry out the various federal programs, services, and functions in a manner that works best for the tribes and their members.

It enables participating tribes to serve their members according to their unique political, social, economic and cultural circumstances, with maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

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I want to make sure tribes have the ability to develop energy resources on their lands if they choose to. An estimated 10 percent of our nation's energy resources are in Indian country. The recently penned national energy policy includes provisions that give control of these resources back to the tribes. Roadblocks to energy production on Indian lands are lifted by allowing tribes to approve individual projects and grant rights of way. For the 50-plus energy resource tribes that support this plan, the energy bill is a vast improvement over the current system in which bureaucratic delays and federal micro-management are deterrents for energy development.

The government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government must be respected and upheld. When legislation or proposals come before the House that do not treat tribes fairly and as sovereigns, I will continue to speak out on behalf of tribes against that legislation.

I was furious to learn of the midnight rider recently attached to the Interior Appropriations bill that puts a one-year stay on a recent federal court decision in the Cobell v. Norton Indian trust fund lawsuit. It was crafted, considered, and added to the conference report in secrecy, with no consultation, notice, or warning given to the Committee on Resources or to the Indians whose rights it affects. My staff was informed about it only when it was a done deal.

This rider jeopardizes far more than just the jurisdiction of this committee and the rights of Indians to seek justice for the decades of mismanagement of their trust accounts by the Department of the Interior. It undermines this very progress that is being made and the prospect of justice for the hundreds of thousands of Indians who have already been waiting for justice for far too many years.

Earlier this year I demanded that a similar measure be dropped from the House version of the Interior bill. This time, I strongly encouraged my colleagues to vote against the bill even though it contained $3 billion in funding to fight wildfires. We fought hard for Indian country, drawing one of the closest votes I have seen during my tenure. The measure passed by only 11 votes.

Without a settlement, this litigation will drag on for years, costing the government billions of dollars for lawyer and accountants, and delaying justice for hundreds of thousands of Indians. We will continue this process of consultation and work with our Senate counterparts to find resolution. Already my Committee has reached out to tribal leaders and individual Indian account money holders, hosting hearings in Washington and throughout Indian country.

Tribes are the governments for their Indian members. Self-Governance thus represents what I believe is a Republican philosophical precept holding that local government best represents and serves the people. Tribes know best how to manage their lands and use their resources wisely. I support this effort and look forwarding to working for progress. The most important thing we can accomplish together is to create a better life for our children. Undoubtedly, their future is the foundation of all that we share in common.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a Republican from the 11th district in California, has been a member of Congress since 1992. On Jan. 8, 2003 he was voted chairman of the House Resources Committee. As chairman, he has jurisdiction over Indian Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives.