Skagit Farmers Relieved Over Clarification of Swinomish Constitutional Amendments

A recent federal clarification would prevent a local Native American tribe from extending its authority beyond its reservation, which Skagit County farmers worried would have had troubling implications for their industry. Photo: Gina

Skagit Valley farmers are praising a recent letter sent by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) which clarified that amendments to a local Native American tribe’s constitution could not be used to expand the reservation’s boundaries or jurisdictional influence.

Under the tribe’s initial proposed constitutional amendments, the Swinomish would have had sovereign rule over the lands, water, property, airspace, surface or subsurface rights and other natural resources within territory the tribe currently holds or would have a future interest in.

Farmers throughout the area said the initial amendments were unclear, and were concerned that the changes might hinder their ability to continue practicing their trade without taking legal action.

Agriculture plays a large role in the Skagit County economy. Approximately 20 million bulbs are harvested each year within the county’s 1,100 acres of tulips, daffodils and irises, according to a 2015 report compiled by Washington State University (WSU). The industry averages $20 million in annual gross income.

The county was responsible for $6.8 million in vegetable seed produce in 2015 – everything from beets and cabbages to spinach and other crops.

Under the proposed amendments, the tribe’s jurisdiction would be “consistent with applicable federal law” to have authority “over all person, subjects, property and activities occurring within its territory” as defined above, the tribe’s existing fishing grounds and “all open and unclaimed lands” allowed under fishing and hunting treaties, and any property or people which may be included within the tribe’s authority.

“That was the real key…it would include air, land, water and minerals of all of their traditional hunting and fishing areas, as well as any area they have an interest in or may have an interest in the future,” said Gerald Baron, executive director of Save Family Farming (SFF).

The change would be “ill-defined and very vague, and not restricted to their reservation boundaries,” he added.

Local farmers were concerned the tribe’s constitutional change would affect two critical aspects of agriculture: drainage and irrigation. That is according to Jason Vander Kooy, executive director of Skagit Family Farmers, an affiliate of Save Family Farming.

Vander Kooy, former dike commissioner for a portion of Skagit County, said: “They’d make things far more difficult, especially if things needed to be repaired or if a farmer needed to take out a permit to make repairs.”

“When we get flood damage (the tribe) makes it difficult to bring those dikes to pre-flood condition… we see the same thing with agriculture if a tide gate or pump fails,” he added. “When things need to be repaired, they need to be soon. Sometimes a year or two delay is not acceptable.”

Baron said the farmers wanted to make sure the Swinomish would not be able to expand their authority beyond what was already agreed upon within federal law.

“If the federal government gave authorization to the claim of jurisdiction, it would provide a stronger legal basis for the tribe to exert its jurisdiction claim over non-reservation land,” he said. “The federal government would be in a position to defend the extension of that jurisdiction.”

The farmers were worried a situation might arise where the tribe could claim an area with drainage or other infrastructure and ask for it to be removed, arguing that their constitution gives them jurisdiction over the area, said Baron. The only option for the farmers, then, would be to contest this claim would be in court. That could be a costly, time-intensive proposition.

On July 7, DOI sent a letter to the Swinomish Tribe which approved its proposed constitutional amendments, however, the department clarified “nothing in this approval shall be construed as altering the tribe’s reservation boundaries” and any contested changes to the reservation’s boundaries would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

The farmers were relieved, according to Van Kooy, however they indicated the explanation would not end all possible conflict between the tribe.

Also, the department’s approval would do nothing to modify the tribe’s jurisdiction outside of its reservation unless otherwise specified by law.

While the letter from the department would help avoid future legal battles regarding the tribe’s jurisdiction, it will not be the end-all for conflicts between the tribe and the farmers, according to Baron.

“We believe by heading this off, hopefully it will serve to prevent a lot of potential conflict… in other areas where tribes were probably looking to this to see what would happen and see if they could be doing the same thing,” he said.

“It doesn’t solve all the problems and it won’t stop the Swinomish from trying to have a say in our farming community,” said Van Kooy, “but it definitely was a victory.”

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