Sierra Nevada tribal land deal unites liberals, conservatives

Kevin Day, chairman of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, testifying before House panel on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.
Kevin Day, chairman of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, testifying before House panel on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. McClatchy

A land transfer that helps a small Sierra Nevada tribe has also succeeded in unifying, against all odds, conservative Republican Rep. Tom McClintock and liberal Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Polar opposites politically, the California lawmakers nonetheless both authored legislation that transfers 80 acres of Stanislaus National Forest land into trust for the benefit of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.

“In what I believe is a first in American history, Sens. (Dianne) Feinstein and Boxer and I all agree on this legislation,” McClintock said Wednesday at a House subcommittee hearing.

A Republican whose mountainous district sweeps from El Dorado County in the north to Fresno County in the south, McClintock has dueling lifetime voting scores of 99 percent from the American Conservative Union and 6 percent from the League of Conservation Voters.

Boxer, now serving out her final Senate term, which ends next year, has a 3 percent vote rating from the conservative group and a 90 percent from the environmental advocates.

Their unusual alliance on the land transfer, combined with the apparent lack of controversy and relatively small size of the proposal, appears to give the legislation a better-than-average shot at passing both the House of Representatives and the Senate and becoming law.

“It’s really important to the tribe that we get this property,” testified Tribal Chairman Kevin Day, adding that “this is something that will really enhance the quality of life of our tribe.”

The Forest Service said Wednesday that it does not oppose the land transfer, and the brisk afternoon hearing before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs proved entirely sympathetic.

“Full speed ahead,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.

The Tuolumne Band currently claims about 400 members, roughly half of whom live on the tribal rancheria in the foothills of Tuolumne County.

As part of its 1,700-plus acres, the tribe owns outright a property called the Murphy Ranch. Two Forest Service parcels of 40 acres are bordered on the south and west by the tribe’s Murphy Ranch, and on the north and east by another ranch.

The legislation considered Wednesday would transfer the two isolated Forest Service parcels into trust for the tribe, easing management and, McClintock and Day said, making it easier to thin overgrowth and prevent forest fires.

“There are a lot of cultural and historical sites there,” Day said. “Our elders still gather out there.”

Although the tribe operates a casino and hotel, gambling operations would be prohibited on the transferred property.

Similar gambling prohibitions are often included in tribal land-transfer bills, like one authored this year by LaMalfa to take 301 acres in Lassen County into trust for the Susanville Indian Rancheria. Boxer has authored a similar bill.

Boxer’s version of the Stanislaus land transfer bill, supported by Feinstein, passed out of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last month. It awaits full Senate action.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10