Closed Circuit

By Sarah P.

As a government organization with assets all around the Western U.S., WAPA has the distinct pleasure of working directly with Native American Tribes. Recently, Lands Management, the Office of General Counsel and other offices came together to accomplish something with a huge operational impact to WAPA.

On Aug. 31 and Sept. 15, 2021, Lands Management received a renewed grant of easement for its Yellowtail-to-Custer 230-kilovolt transmission line for Upper Great Plains and the Lovell-to-Yellowtail #2 115-kV transmission line for Rocky Mountain, both in Montana. This effort is more involved than it seems; WAPA has been working with the Crow Tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs since 2010 to reach an agreement on these renewals, specifically including the transmission lines and access roads. 

The team consisted of Electrical Engineer Audra Coppa, Natural Resource Specialist Christina Gomer, Right-of-Way Surveyor Judd Hopkins, Archaeologist Brian Joseph, Archaeologist David Kluth, Lands Manager Heidi Miller, Realty Specialist Ivett Nagy, Realty Clerk Tracy Rogers, Supervisory Environmental Protection Specialist John Russell and Administrative Assistant Nancy Stam.

Getting to know the Crow Tribe

The Crow Tribe, also known as Crow Nation, is translated from the words Apsáalooké or Absaroka, meaning “children of the large-beaked bird.” It is a Plains Tribe currently residing in the south-central part of Montana with written history dating back earlier than the 1600s. The Tribe has been diligent in keeping its Crow language active; an estimated 3,000 Tribe members spoke the Crow language in 2007.

Many people do not have experience working with Tribes, and may have a few misconceptions about what these relationships look like. While Tribes have distinct cultural heritages, the U.S. government doesn’t meet with them simply as groups of stakeholders that own the land. Some may have heard that Tribes have their own governments and equate that to a local governmental organization, such as a city or county government, but this is also untrue. Tribes are sovereign governments and recognized in the U.S. Constitution as one of the four sovereign governmental entities, and the U.S. government’s relationship with Tribes is considered a government-to-government relationship.

The Crow Tribe has three branches of government: the executive branch, legislative branch and judicial branch. The executive branch consists of the chairperson, vice chairperson, secretary and vice secretary. The legislative branch consists of three members from each of the six districts on the Crow Indian Reservation: the Valley of the Chiefs, Reno, Black Lodge, Mighty Few, Big Horn and Pryor Districts. The judicial branch consists of an elected chief judge and two associate judges.

A renewal more than 10 years in the making

At the time this process started, the Crow Tribe’s legislative and executive branch wanted to explore 20-year renewal terms. As the years progressed, WAPA was able to negotiate a 50-year renewal.

Though WAPA pursued renewals four to five years prior to their expirations, the process lasted longer than expected and the rights expired in 2014 and 2015. When this happens, contractually speaking, the organization is considered in trespass status even though the process was initiated years prior to expiration. 

This was primarily due to the Tribe’s backlog of easement requests from other organizations, organizational handover within the Crow Tribe and the onset of COVID-19 in 2020. 

Through coordination and renewal with the Crow Agency, WAPA was able to build relationships with the regional BIA, which also contributed to the successful right-of-way grant.

A complicated process

The Yellowtail-to-Custer easement is 125 feet wide with 13 miles of transmission line and 5.66 miles of access roads. The Lovell-to-Yellowtail #2 easement is 75 feet wide with 12.66 miles of transmission line and 26.65 miles of access roads. 

One of the factors at play in obtaining an agreement was that 51% of allottees needed to consent to the easement. This is an extremely complicated process, as oftentimes land is passed down through generations to more than one individual in a family, which can result in one piece of property being owned by several hundred people. 

At the time this process started, there were more than 2,000 allottees. However, over the years, the Tribe bought back much of the land in the contract, paring it down to approximately 800 allottees. 

The chairman elected to represent the Crow Tribe had to agree to the terms of the resolution. It then went to the Tribe’s legislature to be voted on, which was completed and approved Jan. 21, 2021. The chairman was then authorized to sign the Right of Way Consent and Settlement Agreement, which occurred April 21, 2021.

WAPA then signed and compiled the applications for the renewals, which were sent to the BIA, including all signed consents from the allottees, the signed agreement with the Tribe, the Tribal Resolution from the legislature and other related documents. WAPA submitted these in May 2021. 

Now that WAPA has the land rights secured, RM plans to rebuild its Lovell-to-Yellowtail #1 and #2 transmission lines with the construction contract awarded this year.

Due to the many factors involved, Miller attributes the agreement’s success to the relationships built with the Crow Tribe, the team’s perseverance and constant communication with the Tribe’s leadership, allottees and other involved parties.

This success has paved the way for updating equipment and assets to continue fulfilling WAPA’s mission. The team appreciates the amount of work and the decades of government-to-government relationship building that went into making this possible. 

Note: The author is a leadership development specialist.

Map of Montana with Crow tribe areas highlighted

The Crow Tribe Reservation is located in Montana and is bordered by Wyoming on the south. Its northwestern boundary is about 10 miles from Billings. 

Note: The author is a leadership development specialist.

Last modified on March 5th, 2024