This West Is OUR West

Feds' assurances on Puget Sound tribe's reach pleases farm group

A Washington farm group is relieved the Interior Department has made clear a tribe’s new constitution won’t be viewed by the federal government an extending the tribe’s jurisdiction to farmland

By Don Jenkins

Published on July 18, 2017

A Washington farm group says it’s relieved federal officials have made clear that a north Puget Sound tribe’s new constitution doesn’t expand the tribe’s jurisdiction to privately owned farmland, a concern that the tribe’s chairman says was overblown.

The Interior Department approved July 7 a proposal by the Swinomish Indian tribe to delete references in its constitution to reservation boundaries set in 1873. Instead, the constitution will more generally describe the tribe’s territory to include “accustomed fishing grounds.”

Bureau of Indian Affairs Northwest director Stanley Speaks told the tribe in a letter that the constitutional amendment won’t expand the tribe’s territory. The letter responded to concerns of farmers, homeowners, businesses and Skagit County commissioners that the tribe would use the new description of its authority to gain control over land outside its 7,000-acre reservation.

Skagit Family Farmers director Gerald Baron said Friday that Speaks’ letter satisfied the group’s worries.

“What it does, as far as we’re concerned, is make clear that the position of the federal government is that the tribe’s jurisdiction isn’t expanded beyond the boundaries of the reservation,” Baron said.

The tribe has had a contentious relationship with agriculture, worsened by What’s Upstream, a tribe-organized campaign to restrict farming near water, The campaign was funded by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“People would like to believe we are anti-ag,” tribe Chairman Brian Cladoosby said Friday. “We just want people to understand ag has a responsibility like everybody else for the environment.”

Cladoosby said that the BIA merely confirmed that the tribe has no interest in controlling farmland.

“Hopefully, people’s fears will now be relieved,” he said.

“The Swinomish has zero jurisdiction over ag land, and we want to keep it that way,” Cladoosby said. “Agriculture is a necessary, important industry to the economy of Skagit County.”

Cladoosby said the constitutional amendment clarifies that the tribe has jurisdiction over its members exercising their hunting, fish and gathering treaty rights off the reservation.

County officials went to Washington, D.C., and lobbied Interior Department officials, asking for a statement that the agency doesn’t view the tribe’s new constitution as an expansion of authority.

“I think this was a good outcome for us,” said county Commissioner Ron Wesen, a dairy farmer.

Wesen said expanded tribal jurisdiction could hinder the operations of drainage systems, which make farming possible in much of the county. Tidegate maintenance has been the source of litigation between the tribe and a drainage district.

“Infrastructure wears out over time, and you have to have the ability to maintain it,” Wesen said.

The tribe maintains that President Ulysses Grant’s executive order setting the reservation boundary illegally usurped congressional authority.

Skagit Family Farmers is an affiliate of Save Family Farming, a group formed to respond to claims by What’s Upstream.