Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Fox is Guarding the Hen House

Once again the Department of the Interior (DOI) is caught mismanaging an item of concern which falls under its care. Read this article to learn about the latest inappropriate behavior on the part of the DOI:

The DOI’s job is to be a wise steward of the nation’s natural resources. One would hope that that would include keeping any indigenous species from disappearing from the Earth under their watch. One would also hope that the DOI would be impeccable in its bookkeeping and attention to legal matters in the execution of this important job, but there’s an awful lot of evidence to the contrary.

In the case of these endangered species nearly losing some additional protection that wildlife biologists and other scientists in possession of actual data and evidence to that effect have recommended, the DOI allowed a Civil Engineer (not a wildlife biologist) to affect the outcome of this decision. According to the referenced article there have been seven instances of wrongdoing and thirty instances where "questions were raised about the integrity of scientific information used and whether the decisions were made consistent with the appropriate legal standards."

And that’s just in THIS case. My beef with the DOI started over the mismanagement of the American Indian Trust Fund, which I first learned about as a graduate student in Native American Studies. To get all the details of this gross mismanagement by the DOI (and that is being nice—it’s outright theft, really), go to All of the details of the lawsuit are there. In summary, Eloise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in northwest Montana, sued the federal government (and won!) because the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which is a department in the DOI, owes billions of dollars to Native American landowners who were never paid for mineral or grazing leases on their land.

This is where I sometimes encounter a response from someone who knows nothing about the “special relationship” between members of federally recognized Indian tribes and the federal government that goes something like this: “Yeah, well those Indians always have their hands out looking for money from the government.” That is NOT what is going on here.

Let’s say you own some land that you are not doing anything with at the moment, and it has a lot of grass for grazing on it. Let’s say that someone in your rural community has more cattle than his land has grass to feed, and he finds out that your land doesn’t have any cattle grazing on it at the moment. So you and he work out a deal where he will lease your land and let the cattle graze on it for a fee. He grazes his cattle on your land, pays you your fee, the cows get fat, you make some money, and everyone is happy.

Now let’s change the story and say that you are a Native American person, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, perhaps. If that is the case then the way you conduct business with your neighbors has just changed. You can make the same deal with your neighbor that I have just described, but because of your “special relationship” with the federal government you are not allowed to take direct payment from your neighbor—he must pay what he owes you to the BIA, who will put the money in the U.S. Treasury (specifically, the American Indian Trust Fund), and then (in theory) the money will be paid back to you.

The problem with this arrangement, as Eloise Cobell discovered, is that the money was not making the final leg of that trip—around 300 billion dollars never made it back out of the U.S. Treasury and into the hands of the people to whom it is owed.

Why is it done this way? That’s a really great question. Some might say that it is done this way so that the federal government can bilk Native Americans of around 300 billion dollars, because that is what the Supreme Court has estimated that the DOI owes Native American people, and what they have ordered the DOI to pay. To date, the DOI has paid not one cent of that money to Native American people, and three consecutive Secretaries of the DOI have been found to be in contempt of court for failing to comply with the directives of the Supreme Court concerning this case

To me this all sounds like the fox is guarding the hen house. It is definitely up to us to make sure that we don’t wake up one morning to find the continent denuded of all of its natural resources while a few fat cats from Texas enjoy the proceeds of the looting they did during their respective tenures in the White House. If we aren’t careful, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will be next!

Wake up, America, and smell the…the…well, there won’t be much of anything lovely to smell if we keep letting our government rip us off this way. We need to pay more attention to what the government is or is not doing to protect our natural resources and those who are stewards of the same, and make sure that everyone (including ourselves) is accountable in this endeavor.

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