Reservation roads

Daily Inter Lake

by Sasha Goldstein

POLSON — More oversight and funding is necessary to improve deteriorating road conditions on tribal lands, tribal leaders emphasized during a Senate Indian Affair Committee field hearing Friday.

Chaired by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the hearing featured two panels and a public question and comment session after the panel testimony on tribal transportation in Indian Country.

The panel discussions featured big names in national Indian affairs issues, beginning with Larry Echo Hawk, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior. Echo Hawk said roads remain extremely important in Indian County and that subpar conditions have created major issues on reservations nationwide.

“Roads are vital in Indian country for education, safety and economic development,” he said. “They must be adequate and they must be safe.”

John Baxter, associate administrator for the federal lands highways program for the Department of Transportation, discussed some the positive impacts federal grants have had, including local Safe Routes to Schools grant money given to Ronan and $12 million in TIGER grant funding given to Lake County. But, he said, reservation roads claim three times the number of lives as the national average.

The second panel to testify featured two local leaders, including Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman E.T. “Bud” Moran and CSKT councilman James Steele Jr., who appeared in his capacity as the chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. The issues discussed during this panel seemed more pressing, as reports came in from tribal leaders who experience the poor road conditions themselves on a daily basis.

Steele, who noted that more than 60 percent of reservation roads remain unpaved, lamented the Bureau of Indian Affairs system of calculating Indian Reservation Roads.

“Many roads are Interstate highways, planned roads or roads that don’t exist,” he said. “They are not Indian reservation roads. This is happening because certain tribes are adding thousands of miles of off-reservation state and county roads to their IRR inventories.”

Even if roads are built, maintenance is usually put off, meaning roads end up in poor shape rather quickly, Moran said. He said that is typical, because funds for such projects have dried up, including a drop of $600,000 in money locally from 2006 levels.

“The things most Americans take for granted often are lacking in our homelands,” Moran said. “Indian tribes still have the highest vehicle and pedestrian fatality rates anywhere in the country and in a number of areas are three to four times the national average. The leading cause of death in many Indian communities is fatal car crashes and much of that is related to road conditions, including both design and lack of maintenance.”

Tester asked what each speaker hoped to see in the next federal highway bill, due out in 2011.

“I’m willing to lend a hand in that process in any way that I can,” he said.

The question and comment section featured tribal representatives from Indian tribes around the West, from California to Arizona and Montana. Many thanked the senator for his hard work on their behalf, but the consistent message was for Tester to find a way to help a system that is as shattered as many reservation roads.