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Roads and resources go separate ways

WASHINGTON - Though several members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs tried to wring an admission from BIA representative Jerry Gidner that the bureau doesn't fight hard enough for roads funding within the federal budget process, a July 12 oversight hearing on transportation issues in Indian country reached a simpler conclusion.

The determination of the committee and many good people to do right by Indian country regularly runs up against a lack of funds, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the committee chairman. ''You're desperately short of resources to bring these roads up to standard,'' he added. He took note that even as his committee discussed the shortfall in roads funding, $640 billion in military appropriations was being debated on the Senate floor.

There is no debate about the roads in Indian country. On many reservations, the end of a county line and the outset of tribal territory is announced by a suddenly rougher ride and visible evidence of road deterioration. The scenario has played out over and over again for years. Yet health, education, economic activity and civic participation all depend on good roads.

The consensus of the committee was that they'll be a while in coming to Indian country, but in the meantime, as emphasized by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., enough maintenance must be done to preserve the resource. Under the budgetary circumstances, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said it is important to get every dollar that is available onto the ground in Indian country, improving transportation systems instead of the bureaucracy that tracks them.

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For that matter, the hearing record indicated that it doesn't track them very well. Gidner defended the BIA's performance within the budget process capably enough, but he had to acknowledge that only about one-fourth of the 562 federally recognized tribes have updated a significant portion of their roads inventory. Under one of the bureau's changes in a formula that generates roads funding, ''Those tribes with an active program for updating inventory data increase or maintain their relative share of the IRR [Indian Reservation Roads] funding ... those that have not may have seen a reduction in their relative share of funding under the new formula.''

By the figures and accounts in Gidner's testimony, another way of saying the same thing would be that 75 percent of tribes ''may have seen a reduction ...'' Murkowski said complaints continue to reach her from tribes that receive less in roads funding than they feel they're supposed to get. At the same time, she said, they get little or no assistance from BIA headquarters with the new formula for generating funding. Gidner testified that tribes can receive training in updating their roads inventory through the Tribal Technical Assistance Program centers. In addition, the BIA, which still cannot send e-mails according to a development specialist who spoke in Washington July 18, ''is taking steps to make a duplicate IRR database available for Tribes to access and update information electronically. BIA hopes to have this system available in FY [fiscal year] 2008.''

But Gidner did assure Murkowski that an on-the-ground roads inventory is going forward in Alaska.