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Report: Big projects need tribal input

N.D. 1806 crosses near the former site of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps just outside the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Lawmakers and tribal leaders have called attention to a government watchdog report that says federal agencies need to improve their consultation with tribes on major infrastructure projects. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio)

A group of U.S. lawmakers and tribal leaders has called attention to a government watchdog report that says federal agencies need to improve their consultation process with tribes on major infrastructure projects that could have an impact on Native Americans’ land and cultural resources.

The Government Accountability Office began its review of federal agencies at the request of Democratic lawmakers three years ago after criticism over the approval of the heavily protested Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

The Standing Rock Sioux complained, among other things, that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to properly consult with them before initially approving a pipeline route that ran beneath Lake Oahe, a primary source of drinking water for the tribe.

The recently released watchdog report found several dozen tribes told federal officials following the start of the pipeline protests in 2016 that they were consulted only during the late stages of a major project.

“Consultation with tribes should not be an afterthought,” said Thora Padilla, director of the Division of Resource Management and Protection for the Mescalero Apache Tribe in southern New Mexico.

“It validates and verifies what we’ve been hearing from Indian Country for a long, long time,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, said of the report. “Avoiding conversations until after decisions are made is not consultation.”

Grijalva, Padilla, tribal leaders and others held a news conference earlier this month in Washington to highlight the report. Grijalva also announced he is sponsoring legislation to establish a mandatory tribal consultation process for federal agencies.

The GAO said federal agencies generally agreed with its recommendations, which did not directly reference disputes over the Dakota Access Pipeline, built by Energy Transfer Partners.

One of the key recommendations calls for agencies to update tribes on the bearing their input may have on final infrastructure decisions.

The report’s authors also recommended that the government create a central system that officials could reference to determine whether tribes need to be consulted. The system could include data on geographic locations that hold religious or cultural significance for tribes.

Federal agencies are often required by laws, treaties and executive orders to consult with tribal leaders on major projects planned for reservations and other lands where their constituents may have special hunting and fishing rights, though the mandates for how those conversations occur can vary.

Grijalva’s bill would essentially make recommendations in the GAO report into law.