DENVER – A 680-mile natural gas pipeline from Wyoming to Oregon has been praised by Colorado’s governor, the state’s resource-rich Ute tribal nations, and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, but the project irks some residents on at least four reservations who say it disturbs cultural resources and they were excluded from decision-making.

“I want to thank the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for recognizing the importance of this $3 billion project and allowing it to move forward,” Gov. Bill Ritter said recently of the pipeline that could move Colorado natural gas – found abundantly on Southern Ute Indian Tribe lands – to West Coast markets.

But others see it as a project that will impact tribal patrimony and traditional territories without tribal agreement. At least one of them, the Klamath Tribes – Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin – cannot support the project because of its impacts on cultural resources, the Bureau of Land Management said.

“For us, it has nothing to do with money – it has to do with religious integrity and aboriginal prayer sites,” said Perry Chocktoot, cultural and heritage director for the Klamath Tribes. “And I have an ethical oath to defend my people and my homelands.”

Similar positions were voiced by key officials of the Shoshone/Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation of Idaho and Nevada, the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe and, to the south, the CERT-affiliated Walker River Paiute Tribe whose chairman, Lorren Sammaripa, said via the tribal administrator that the pipeline “is a negative project, and tribal people need to stick together.”

The 42-inch pipeline has an initial capacity of up to 1.5 billion cubic feet per day, traversing remote areas of Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Oregon, according to Ruby Pipeline LLC, Colorado Springs, Colo., whose parent company, El Paso Corporation, Houston, Texas, is partnered with transnational Global Infrastructure Partners on the project.

The Southern Utes, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Colorado, and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Utah, CERT member tribes with oil and gas reserves, wrote letters of support for Ruby Pipeline, as did A. David Lester, Muscogee Creek, CERT executive director, who praised El Paso Corporation’s tribal outreach program.

Although tribal resources exist along the pipeline route, the tribal nations’ present-day boundaries will not be crossed, so neither the tribes nor BIA were enlisted as cooperating agencies, a designation held by FERC, the lead agency, as well as by BLM and other federal and state agencies with jurisdictional authority or special expertise.

In addition, because the project did not transect contemporary tribal reservation boundaries, the pipeline could proceed without tribal nations’ approval, said Mark A. Mackiewicz, BLM project manager. The project is, however, required to comply with federal laws protecting the environment and tribal culture and mandating government-to-government consultation with the tribes.

Nevertheless, despite federal agencies’ documentation of calls, letters and meetings with tribes, “It’s all about archaeology,” said Ted Howard, director for cultural resources protection and tribal member, Shoshone/Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation of Idaho and Nevada, one of the tribal leaders contacted by phone. “It should be a two-way street – they need to learn about Native American spirituality from us, as well.”

“Adequate consultation is something that should have been done at the beginning – they’re trying to do it now, but the last thing should have been the first thing,” said Warner Barlese, chairman of the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, whose reservation is located less than one mile south of the project area. The tribe’s traditional homeland and current hunting and gathering territory extend into the project area.

Other Nevada tribes are looking to Summit Lake “to take the lead in fighting this, even though we don’t have a lot of resources, either,” he said.

Noting there have been some pipeline micro-reroutes to avoid thousands of prayer-stacks in the Klamath Tribes’ area, Chocktoot said Ruby’s changes were like “missing the pews, but still going through the church, if you know what I mean.”

“Their biggest mistake was not coming to us to say, ‘Where in your homelands do you have an area where we can put this pipeline?’” he said, noting that for the Klamath Tribes, mandatory government-to-government consultation was “a big lip service, because we’ve time and time again voiced our displeasure with their pipeline and it has landed on deaf ears.”

Mackiewicz said tribal consultation was “sovereign nation to sovereign nation,” and even if tribes withhold approval “we did our level best, and are still working with some of the tribes.”

The project’s Native American Tribal Employment Program, coordinated by Ruby Pipeline, its construction contractors, and Denver-based CERT, has hired 22 Native employees to date, a number that could soon be doubled if a second group completes mandatory informational meetings for site monitoring and other jobs, said Richard Wheatley, media relations manager for El Paso. That number is out of some 5,000 employees overall on a peak day along the entire pipeline.

Barlese and Chocktoot pointed out that under the program 50 percent of jobs are for Ruby Pipeline employees, 50 percent are union jobs, and many union workers are already employed there. Tribal cultural resource technicians may not always be hired because the pipeline route has already been configured and tribal members might point out sites it should not cross, Barlese said.

Ruby’s tribal coordinator, Les Anderson, Modoc/Pit River, tells tribes the employment program, while “history-making and unique,” is “just a draft – you can change it to whatever you want.”

Anderson contacted 31 tribes along the proposed pipeline route, which is planned to cross or adjoin nearly 1,000 cultural resource sites, about half of which were determined to be potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Construction began July 31 and the pipeline is scheduled to begin operation in March 2011, according to Ruby Pipeline’s website. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit July 30 in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the project over wildlife concerns.