Bill could fast-track development

– The development of Sargent Ranch could happen years earlier
than expected if federal legislation introduced by Congressman
Richard Pombo (R–Tracy) clears the backlog of American Indian
tribes waiting to pass through the federal recognition process.
Gilroy – The development of Sargent Ranch could happen years earlier than expected if federal legislation introduced by Congressman Richard Pombo (R–Tracy) clears the backlog of American Indian tribes awaiting federal recognition.

Passage of the bill could hasten federal recognition of the Amah Mutsun Indian Tribe, which is divided over how to develop the 6,500 acre ranch south of Gilroy that makes up its ancestral lands.

The legislation, which Pombo introduced in early February, would give the Bureau of Indian Affairs one year to issue a final ruling on the status of 10 tribes that applied for recognition more than 15 years ago. It would also allow them to appeal an unfavorable BIA decision in federal district court.

“The BIA process has worked much slower than expected,” Pombo said when he introduced the bill. “Many Indian groups have waited decades to go through this process … and they’re still waiting. Ten petitions ready to be considered were filed before 1988.”

While the bill would not directly affect the Amah Mutsun Indian Tribe, it would considerably shorten the waiting time before their petition for acknowledgment comes up for review.

Val Lopez, one of two rival leaders within the fractured tribe, welcomed the legislation but remained skeptical.

“That will help us and accelerate the process,” he said. “But I don’t see how the BIA’s going to be able to clean those cases out and do a thorough review with their existing staff. They really are understaffed … I’m not sure if once you clean those out it wouldn’t be business as usual.”

Irenne Zwierlein, leader of the rival Amah Mutsun faction, could not be reached for comment.

The tribe’s federal Petition 120 now stands 13th in line among groups listed as “Ready for Active Consideration.” Ahead of those are six applications under “Active Consideration.” BIA regulations assign a two-year review period for each application, although in practice the process frequently lasts years longer, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office.

At the current pace, the Amah Mutsun tribe faces at least another decade before its application comes off the shelf. Pombo’s bill could shorten that time to a handful of years, acknowledged Matt Streit, a spokesperson for the House Resources Committee, although he could not provide an exact time-frame.

The Amah Mutsun band originally notified the BIA of its intent to apply for recognition in 1991, according to Lopez. The tribe splintered in 2000, when Zwierlein, the tribe’s former chair, resigned to form her own tribal council.

Lopez and his faction have pledged to preserve as open space the rolling hills and streams that make up Sargent Ranch, the tribe’s ancestral lands. Zwierlein’s faction, meanwhile, has forged a multi-million dollar pact with developer Wayne Pierce to open the land for development. Under an economic plan submitted to the BIA, Pierce would cede the tribe 3,500 acres of land to place in trust under tribal law in exchange for $21 million for a cultural center and 500 acres for tribal homes. In return, the tribe would lease back 3,000 acres to Pierce to allow him to develop.

The deal emerged a few years after the developer’s initial proposals to build golf courses and hillside homes met with strong opposition from county officials. Pierce did not return requests for comment, but has said in recent months that he has shifted his development plans, which hinge on the tribe gaining federal recognition, to senior housing or congregate care facilities.

While Pierce has thrown considerable financial support behind Zwierlein, allowing her to place the Amah Mutsun petition among those ready for active consideration, it remains unclear which faction the BIA will choose to work with. Top officials at the agency have said they would select one leader as the legitimate tribal representative when the petition comes up for review.

That day could arrive much sooner with the aid of Pombo’s bill, which has strong support among tribes facing a notoriously time-consuming, complex, and often inconsistent recognition process.

Lance Gumbs, chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, of New York, testified before congressional members on Feb. 10 that his tribe first filed its petition for acknowledgment in 1978.

“So if my frustration over the current federal recognition process is evident in my testimony,” he said, “it is because it was forged by the blood, sweat and tears of too many members of our tribe. … Now, nearly three decades later it merely gathers dust in a file. And regrettably, 13 of those original members will never see our tribe attain recognition – they have all passed on.”

Lopez said the Amah Mutsun still have members who were alive before 1928, when the federal government stripped them of tribal status.

“Our hope has always been to get recognized before they die,” he said.

But officials with the Department of Interior, the umbrella agency in charge of the BIA, criticized Pombo’s bill as a solution worse than the problem.

“We are concerned that the timeframes established by the bill would not allow … adequate time to thoroughly review a petition and, thus, may result in the acknowledgment standards being lowered,” testified Michael Olsen, acting assistant secretary of Indian affairs. “The administrative record for an acknowledgment petition is voluminous. Some completed petitions have been in excess of 30,000 pages. One year to review potentially 10 petitions (the approximate number of those qualifying under the bill) consisting of thousands of pages is simply unrealistic.”

Olsen also said that “the Department supports a more timely decision-making acknowledgment process, but does not believe that a thorough factual review should be forfeited merely to advance long-standing petitions.”

Pombo, who chairs the resources committee, has no Indian tribes within his legislative district nor any tribes petitioning for federal acknowledgment, according to committee spokesperson Streit. He said the next phase of the legislative process involves markup, when congressional members can add amendments to a bill.

Streit said the legislation has bipartisan support within the committee – a crucial factor in getting the bill to the House floor for a vote.

“There’s a concern by not only the chairman (Pombo) but by a number of Democrats on the committee,” Streit said. “The overall consensus is that the process is taking too long. It’s unfair.”

If Pombo’s bill clears the House, it will next have to receive approval by the Senate and, ultimately, the president.

“We’ve been waiting since 1991, so it’s hard for me to get excited about this,” Lopez said. “I hope it does happen because it will get us that much closer, but at the same time, we’ve learned that getting excited usually doesn’t get us much.”

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