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Sometimes, we need a referee

Mar 21, 2014 - By Chris Peck

The dispute over the EPA ruling on the reservation's border fits that description.

My heart is with Keja Whiteman on this one.

The Fremont County Commissioner recently wished out loud that the county would look for a solution other than a lawsuit to try to resolve the dust-up over the EPA's opinion that Riverton is now part of the Wind River Indian reservation -- after 108 years of thinking that it wasn't.

"I think when you immediately jump to litigation the only people who benefit are the attorneys,'' she told The Ranger on the day her fellow commissioners voted to join a lawsuit challenging the EPA's ruling.

It's possible, of course, that the county won't end up spending a lot of time or money to be part of the State of Wyoming's lawsuit against the EPA. A judge still has to grant the county's request to be part of the suit, and the state is carrying the case.

And even now, the county could simply opt to be a friend of the court, or add its name to a long list of supporters of the state's opposition to the EPA ruling.

But there is also a chance that Fremont County will be allowed to fully join the legal challenge and be on the hook for legal bills.

That's part of Whiteman's concern. "Other litigation has been quite costly to the county,'' she told The Ranger, a good point that cost- conscious taxpayers will want to remember as the fervor builds to challenge the EPA ruling.

How much time, money and effort do the people want to put into that challenge? At the moment, the sky seems to be the limit.

Clearly, the notion of Riverton being part of the Wind River Reservation sticks in the craw of many in the city. The reasons for that opposition range from concerns over law enforcement jurisdictions, to worries about the federal government intervening in very local politics, to oft-unspoken resistance to the idea of Riverton becoming part of "Indian country.''

So yes, wouldn't it be grand if, as commissioner Whiteman hopes, Riverton residents, tribal representatives and the EPA could all just sit down and talk it all through.

The tribes, at least in public pronouncements, have suggested just that.

But there haven't been any formal invitations for a sit-down. Nothing is scheduled.

Instead, the Northern Arapaho now have themselves gone to court to file a petition to be an intervener in this EPA dispute.

All of these actions suggest the moment for sitting down for a good chat may have passed.

In other words, this dispute probably needs to go to the courts. Because in this country, we all agree that some things can't be decided without a third party. Divorces, family disputes, allegations of wrongdoing very often require a trusted referee. The EPA ruling does as well.

Key issues to be resolved by the court include:

- Looking at what past laws and lawsuits related to tribal boundaries actually say and do.

- Defining the legal rights of the federal, state and local governments.

- Balancing the competing interests against a standard of equality and fairness for individuals, tribes and the state of Wyoming.

No, that's less appealing than a good sit-down-and-work-it-out session. But in this case that won't work.

Instead, the rule of law will be invoked. And we're lucky as a nation to have it.

People with wildly different views of the world, and of what is fair and just, still can agree that we all need to live within the authority and influence of the law.

It may not be as good as talking things out, but it sure beats riots in the streets.