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Northern Cheyenne coal swap goes back to Congress

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MATTHEW BROWN | April 1, 2014 06:19 PM EST | AP

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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Leaders of Montana's Northern Cheyenne tribe on Tuesday sought to revive a three-way coal swap involving the federal government and a Texas company after an earlier proposal stumbled in Congress.

The swap would fix a mistake made in 1900, when the government expanded the reservation but failed to acquire the underlying minerals.

A measure introduced on behalf of the tribe by U.S. Rep. Steve Daines calls for the government to turn over an estimated 112 million tons of publicly-owned coal to Houston-based Great Northern Properties.

The coal is in tracts located near Signal Peak Energy's Bull Mountain mine north of Billings and near Westmoreland Coal Co.'s Absaloka mine north of the reservation.

In exchange, Great Northern would transfer to the tribe an estimated 117 million tons of coal lying beneath its reservation, according to representatives of the tribe.

An earlier version of the bill from now-retired Sen. Max Baucus stalled because it would have given Great Northern more coal than the tribe received. That lopsided arrangement drew opposition from the U.S. Department of Interior and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and the bill never advanced.

Daines spokeswoman Alee Lockman said the Republican's staff has been in conversations with Interior representatives about the bill, but the agency has not taken a formal position.

Northern Cheyenne tribal administrator William Walks Along said the tribe hopes changes made to the new version of the bill will keep the focus on the resolution of the tribe's claims, instead of any benefits for Great Northern.

"We're not looking to step on anybody's interests," Walks Along said. "The tribe's main emphasis is the settlement of our claims to the U.S. for failing to acquire the subsurface rights on 5,000 acres in the heart of our homeland here."

The tribe is working with U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mt., on companion legislation that will be introduced in the Senate in coming weeks.

The tribe has no immediate plans to develop the reservation's coal, although it has had discussions with various mining companies in recent years. Tribal leaders have said any mine proposal would have to be put to the Northern Cheyenne's full membership for a vote.

Also new to the coal-swap bill are provisions to put into federal trust 635 acres of tribally owned land in South Dakota and 932 acres in Montana. The tribe has long sought to protect its land by keeping it in federal trust for the benefit of its members.

The land in South Dakota is near the sacred site of Bear Butte, where the Northern Cheyenne prophet Sweet Medicine is said to have gone inside the mountain to receive a sacred arrow bundle from the Great Spirit, Walks Along said.

Putting the land in trust would help protect the site from future commercial development, he said.

Another new provision would transfer about $5 million to the tribe from a trust fund that was established as part of a 1992 water-rights settlement between the tribe and the U.S.