FARMINGTON The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday said it had approved the Southern Ute Indian Tribe's air permitting program, making the tribe the first in the nation to operate an EPA-approved Clean Air Act program for major sources of air emissions.

The program allows the tribe to issue permits and perform inspections at large stationary sources of air emissions on the reservation, such as oil and gas production sites.

The EPA said it will continue to oversee the tribe's permitting program, just as it does for state permitting programs.

"The assumption of this program is a significant step forward for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the environment," Jim Martin, EPA's regional administrator in Denver, said in a prepared statement. "EPA's approval reflects the tribe's exceptional effort to build the expertise and capacity to manage air quality on the reservation."

The tribe worked for nearly a decade to obtain the authority to implement its own air permitting program. Previously, the EPA served as the permitting authority on the tribe's behalf.

The agency's approval is effective immediately, said Carl Daly, an EPA spokesman in Denver.

"EPA approval of this program is an achievement that was envisioned by many past tribal leaders and is the culmination of extensive cooperation among the tribe, EPA, state of Colorado, La Plata County, and oil and gas industry operators," Southern Ute Chairman Jimmy R. Newton Jr. said in a joint release with the EPA. "The tribe looks forward to administering the program in a manner that ensures protection of the reservation airshed and contributes positively to regional air quality."

A tribal spokeswoman could not be reached for further comment Monday.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is based in Ignacio, Colo., in the heart of the natural gas-rich San Juan Basin. The tribe's reservation is dotted with oil and gas production.

The tribe has numerous interests in the oil and gas industry, including its own production company, Red Willow Production Co.