The Shoshone-Bannock tribes are fighting to control development at an airport owned by a neighboring city but in the middle of their reservation. But the city –Pocatello, Idaho – is having no part of it.
The conflict came to light in late April when, much to the tribes’ dismay, they discovered the city has contracted with a commercial tenant, a solar company, and forbidden the company from making agreements with the tribes.
The airport property, spanning roughly 3,300 acres, was once part of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeast Idaho, which the Shoshone-Bannock tribes call home. The federal government assumed control of the tract during World War II, for use as an air base. And despite verbal assurances that they would return the land to the tribes, the feds sold it for $1 to the neighboring city of Pocatello. For the tribes, it’s an insult that still stings.
Monte Gray, an attorney for the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, says the tribes first became aware of the solar company’s lease when people from the federal Aviation Administration and the Boise-based company – called Pocatello Solar, LLC – approached the tribes as they were working through environmental approvals to develop the site. But when it came time to make agreements with the tribes, Pocatello Solar wouldn’t sign anything.
“They gave us a statement that had nobody’s name on it and just said what they were going to do for the tribes,” Gray said. “But it’s not about money for the tribes. It’s about making sure crap won’t go in around the tribes that will impact us.”
The Shoshone-Bannock tribes know about being wronged by private landowners within the reservation. Some estimates say it will be 10,000 years before serious water and land pollution abates from two phosphate plants, FMC Corp. and the J.R. Simplot Co., which operated on and near the reservation for decades. The tribes now struggle to cope with a Superfund site that still sickens their people.
But Pocatello Solar couldn’t sign any agreements with the tribes. Their contract with the city of Pocatello, the “Lessor,” forbids it.
The controversial clause, labeled “tribal issues,” reads: “Lessee acknowledges and agrees to immediately provide Lessor with a copy of any written correspondence or material provided to Lessee by the Tribes, and not to enter into any written agreement with the Tribes regarding the demised premises or Lessee’s operations thereon without first obtaining Lessor’s written consent to do so.”
Gray called the provision offensive and discriminatory; he says it might even be illegal.
Randy’L Teton, the tribes’ public affairs manager, said tribal administrators were “shocked, because we had no idea they actually had language in a formal agreement that said you cannot enter into any agreements with the tribe.”
Teton said the move hurt even more because Pocatello’s mayor, Brian Blad, has been a friend to the tribes. “He has been a good partner in the sense that he comes over for community service projects, comes over at Christmas and delivers presents,” she said. But Blad says he’s in a tough spot too. He said the city’s attorneys are afraid to let the tribes do the things they want to on the site – to permit aspects of the business, and enforce the Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance (TERO) – because allowing the tribes to exert that kind of control establishes a legal posture “where they could come in and say that’s our land now, and take it,” he said. “They want jurisdiction. That’s our concern.” The city’s contract provisions, Blad says, are “prudent business.”
Blad said he extended a compromise offer to the tribes: “I asked them, you want to do something, write me a letter and ask, and I will grant permission. Write me a letter that says can we please go and look for this, and that is 100 percent granted,” he said. As for companies developing on the airport land, he has proposed that “instead of having an agreement with the tribe, have an agreement with a tribal member to go out there and look for whatever it is you’re looking for. Then the company owns that intelligence, and the company can give that to the tribe.”
Blad said the tribes have refused that offer, and he’s frustrated at a situation that looks hopeless. “The Shoshone-Bannock tribe literally mistrust and hates the city of Pocatello to the point where we can’t even discuss things,” he said. “Every conversation starts with how the city of Pocatello stole their land.”
He said the city is also mistrustful, which he attributes to years of the tribes asserting regulatory power to the point of driving businesses away. He attributes 4,000 in lost jobs and $1.5 billion in lost valuation to the endless layers of regulation – by the city, the state and then the tribes.
Gray, the Shoshone-Bannock attorney, said business interests are also, in part, what’s keeping the tribes vying for a seat at the table.
“We could get agreements in place for permitting, to comply with TERO,” Gray said. “It would help promote the sovereignty of the tribes, and help us to protect our own people, and protect what happens out here, and bring in training and lower unemployment. A lot of people don’t understand that the tribes have the worst unemployment anywhere in the nation. Out here we’re running right around 17 percent unemployment. That’s crazy high.”
Gray also has a more sinister concern. He thinks the real fight isn’t the solar company, but instead the company waiting behind it. A PVC pipe company wants to sign a similar lease on over 900 acres of adjacent land at the airport site, and it has the potential, Gray thinks, to pollute much more. Gray said the FAA is conducting an environmental review for the whole parcel. Once that’s done, the PVC pipe company could come in without additional scrutiny by the feds – and if these contract provisions hold up, the tribe won’t have any control either. He fears an FMC situation all over again.
Blad dismissed that concern. “We’re just as worried about the pollutants as the tribe is,” he said. “Our citizens are just as important to us as the tribal citizens are to the tribe. The idea that ‘we’re the only ones who will protect our land’ is ludicrous.”
Blad says he’s at a loss for how to proceed. “At the end of the day, my wish is just that we can work together and improve things out there,” he said.
Gray’s own wish has a similar tone: “I would like them to say, ‘we’ll pull out these terms because they are discriminatory in nature. We’ll let you go out there and permit this stuff, bring in TERO,’” he said. “There are a lot of things we could do jointly if we went out there and worked together.”