Land auction suspended as tribes claim first rights
The U.S. Forest Service has suspended the auction of its former ranger station in Twisp, Okanogan County, after the Colville Confederated...
The U.S. Forest Service has suspended the auction of its former ranger station in Twisp, Okanogan County, after the Colville Confederated Tribes complained that it should have had the right to acquire the property first.
Caught in the middle of the dispute in federal court is the Methow Valley town, which has made acquisition of the property, including 17 buildings on 6.7 acres, the focus of its redevelopment plans.
Twisp's Public Development Authority made the only bid on the site — $1 million — before the Forest Service halted the online auction.
The town's residents have made "a huge local investment in developing a vision for that property," said Kate Jones, executive director of the Methow Arts Alliance and a member of the Public Development Authority.
Jones said the authority has spent $30,000 on a feasibility study for the project, which envisions a town center that combines ecological awareness and the arts through education. Project advocates hoped to incorporate a new library, a farmers cooperative and an American Indian cultural center.
Now the project has been thrown in doubt, and some residents are concerned the Colville Tribe is interested in Twisp as a potential casino site. Tribal Business Council Vice Chairman Michael Finley said Tuesday the tribe wants the property for cultural reasons.
"We can't comment on what's going to happen on the site, because we don't have it," Finley said. "But I encourage people to look at the likelihood of building an off-reservation casino," of which there are only a few in the country, he said.
As for what would happen to the property after acquisition, "I can't say," Finley said.
Though the property is in Twisp city limits, 40 miles west of the Colville Reservation, the tribal government maintains that it is within the ancestral homeland of several of the 12 tribes that make up the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
The land on which Twisp now sits was briefly part of the Columbia Reservation, established in 1879 and reserved for the Moses-Columbia Tribe and other indigenous people before being dissolved in 1886.
According to the tribes' complaint, filed Oct. 17, the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act entitles Indian tribes "to avail themselves of the opportunity to acquire excess or surplus federal property prior to conveying such property to other parties."
The tribes say Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest officials notified tribal government that the agency was "initiating environmental analysis," but not that it intended to sell the property at auction.
"The Indian self-determination act clearly defines how federal excess properties are supposed to be disposed of," said Finley. "They didn't follow the act."
Finley said the tribes learned in July that the Forest Service planned to auction the property in August. Tribal officials say they heard about the auction from members of the Twisp Public Development Authority, who were seeking tribal cooperation in developing the American Indian center.
On Aug. 14, the tribes wrote to Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest supervisor Rebecca Heath requesting a delay and possibly a withdrawal of the auction, according to court documents.
Heath agreed to delay the auction, but later denied the request to withdraw it.
The auction opened Sept. 30. The U.S. Attorney's Office, representing the Forest Service, suspended the auction last week because it did not have time to respond to the tribes' motion for a restraining order.
"At this time, there is no reason to believe the tribes' complaint sets forth valid legal contentions," Assistant U.S. Attorney Pamela DeRusha said.
Ray Johnston, a Seattle architect and part-time resident of Twisp who is board chairman of the development authority, said Tuesday that the board had been talking to tribal officials about the project for about a year.
"We've always liked the thought of them as part of whatever is produced in Twisp," Johnston said.
"A week after we made our bid, they filed their injunction," Johnston said. Nevertheless, he said he does not feel the tribe pulled the rug out from under the project and he hopes the authority still can work with the tribes.
"There are probably a number of scenarios where Twisp and the tribe can come out winners," Johnston said.
Judge Lonny R. Suko will hear the tribes' motion for a permanent injunction against the sale on Dec. 15 in federal court in Spokane.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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