The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation is working with Congressman Jared Huffman on proposed legislation that, if passed, would make it easier for the tribe to put its lands into trust.

The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Lands Act would enable the tribe to efficiently manage the lands it owns as well as its resources and programs and ensure a timely fee-to-trust process with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to a tribal news release.

The legislation would provide for the restoration of the exterior boundaries of the 1862 Smith River Reservation, renaming it the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Reservation and formalize federal partnerships to better manage natural resources, according a fact sheet of the the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Lands Act.

However, tribal Chairman Scott Sullivan said the legislation doesn’t affect current land ownership or the rights of private citizens.

The proposed legislation also wouldn’t affect the ability of the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office or the California Highway Patrol to police the area, Sullivan said.

“It’s mostly to assist us in the bureaucratic process of putting our tribally-owned lands into trust, it’s not changing anything happening within those boundaries,” Sullivan said. “Say we purchased a parcel of land after the boundaries were expanded, it would be easier for us, administratively less burdensome for us to put those lands into trust if we were doing that for some reason.”

The proposed Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation boundary from 1862 encompasses the western portion of Del Norte County from the Oregon border to the southern end of Lake Earl, according to a map prepared by Huffman’s office.

Putting tribal lands into trust prevents it from being seized through eminent domain, Sullivan said. It also allows the tribe to hold onto that land without paying property taxes, he said.

“It also reduces the regulatory burden, so there’s not as many jurisdictions having regulations on the land,” Sullivan said. “We always follow California standards, (but) we’re only required to follow federal building code.”

According to Briannon Fraley, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation’s chief governance officer, the tribe currently owns 830 acres of land that would be transferred into trust through a legislative process.

“The benefit to put this land into trust affords the opportunity to meet the housing needs of the community, provide additional federal dollars to come into the county and provide for economic opportunity outside of gaming,” Fraley told the Triplicate via email on Thursday. “The benefit to the larger community is the opportunity for the tribe to increase jobs, increase housing options and increased partnerships for federal funding. For example, the tribe’s partnership with the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery has brought over $1 million since 2012 in federal, state and tribal dollars to the Smith River Community.”

The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation has been working with congressional representatives on lands legislation since before congressional redistricting in 2012.

In 2012, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation had a discussion draft in the works through Congressman Mike Thompson.

But Sullivan and Fraley, say the proposed legislation has sparked some misunderstanding, especially after Huffman’s office sent a letter on April 4 to local governing agencies, including the Smith River Community Services District, requesting input on the proposed legislation.

Fraley said representatives of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation have spoken at a meeting of the Big Rock Community Services District on Thursday and will speak at the Smith River Community Services District meeting on Monday to mitigate any concerns.

“The legislation is doing nothing to affect the people that would be within the reservation,” she said. Indian law is very clear that the jurisdiction of the tribe is over its people and the way that our constitution was set up, it also reinforces that.”

One document that has been circulating claims the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Lands Act would cause a decline in property values, an increase in crime, a reduction in tourism and would prevent the Smith River and Big Rock CSDs from building emergency capital reserves and capital improvement plans.

Although the document has the Smith River CSD letterhead and address on it, agency representatives say it didn’t originate with them.

When asked for comment about the proposed legislation, the Smith River CSD General Manager Chris Vaughan said the board of directors hasn’t weighed in on the matter yet.

“I need to decline to comment until I have more information,” Vaughan told the Triplicate via email on Thursday.

Fraley said the tribe and Huffman’s office is still asking for feedback. Comments will be collected through the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation’s Office of Self-Governance. Email is the best way to provide that input, she said.

The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation will also be working with Huffman’s office to review comments that have been sent there, Fraley said.

Comments on the proposed legislation can be sent to briannon.fraley@tolowa.com or to Huffman’s district representative, John Driscoll, at john.driscoll@mail.house.gov . Huffman asks that feedback and questions be sent to his office by May 4.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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