The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

Tribal sovereignty should mean something, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said today at a session of the National Tribal Energy Summit today in Washington, D.C.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at the Tribal Energy Summit"We need a discussion on that. As I look at the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, I think it’s time for a dialogue. What are we going to be 100 years from now? Is there an off-ramp? If I offered today that the tribe would have a choice of leaving the Indian Trust lands and becoming a 501c3 Corporation, another entity, some tribes would take it.  I think quite frankly at BIA (the Bureau of Indian Affairs), I’m not sure in many ways we're value- added. I'm not sure that we're providing the services in education in a regulatory framework that promotes self-determination.  My friend, I'm not sure we are; and we need this dialogue,” he said.

Zinke was the opening plenary speaker at the summit, hosted by the Department of Energy in conjunction with NCSL.

Referencing former President Theodore Roosevelt, the secretary said he didn't believe in transferring or selling public lands.

"Roosevelt's idea (was) that our public property belongs to us all and as the Secretary of Interior I have a great obligation to make sure as the steward of our public lands to make sure that we have value on it, that it's multiple-use," he said. "Some lands are best kept where man is an observer with the lightest footprints  but a lot of our lands are in multiple use where they are for the benefit and enjoyment of people."

Zinke said he believed that "with technology it is not a tradeoff between creating jobs, energy and good stewardship in an environmentally conscious and responsible way."

"If you go out West, the Department of Interior which is Fish and Wildlife, and Park Service, and BLM, we're not well-liked in some places, and we're not trusted in some places, and that bothers me because...a breach.”

"‘So how do we restore trust? Some of it is making sure that we put our resources in the front line, where they belong, because these cost-cutting measures...what they've done is they've rolled up our front line and they've regionalized sills and people and people are no longer in the communities they serve," he said.

"I think it’s  helpful to be a volunteer football or volleyball coach and be embedded in the communities so when decisions are made from the grassroots up, that we're all a part and partner, rather than a line of being an advocate or an adversary."

Zinke pledged to be and advocate and a partner to tribes. "We need to be helpful, we need to be a partner in the decision to develop your natural resources, the tribe that's your decision in your decision alone.  My job is to make sure that if you want to, to get out of your way so you can do it; to be helpful, to be the advocate in your corner, so sovereignty is a word that has meaning. And consultation is not a last minute idea," he said.  

He said he planned to focus on revenue, "how to accelerate our ability to move either coal, natural gas (and) gas, so we as a nation can have infrastructure. And why does energy matter anyway? Well, it matters if you're going to have a job. In some tribes, coal or energy is the only job. I’ll quote the former chairman of the Crow: 'A war on coal is a war on Crow people,' because that’s the only job available."

Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.