Gov’t Ready to Spend $1.9B to Buy Back Land for Indian Tribes

By Susan Jones | June 21, 2013 | 8:04 AM EDT

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. (AP Photo)

( - The Obama administration is moving ahead with plans to spend $1.9 billion to buy back land held by individual Indians for the benefit of American Indian tribes.

The enormous buy-back program will allow the tribes to consolidate ownership of land that has been passed down through the generations, to the point where one tract may be owned by hundreds, or even thousands, of individuals.

The Interior Department says the voluntary Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations is “part of President Obama’s commitment to help strengthen Indian communities.”

The $1.9 billion will be spent to purchase “fractionated” interests from willing sellers, at fair market value, within a ten-year period. The acquired, consolidated land, to be held in trust by the federal government, will make it easier for tribes to get bank loans to boost economic development.

Following consultations with the tribes, the Interior Department announced this week that it is ready to begin working with tribal nations, “so we can proceed with initial offers by the end of this year,” said David J. Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior.

Hayes chairs the oversight board, which was created to ensure the “highest-level of accountability” within the Interior Department

The Interior Department says its personnel have been hard at work refining valuation methods, updating title systems, and staffing appraisal teams to handle the “significant interest” in the buy-back program.

With the money taps open, even tribes that don’t have large numbers of fractionated lands will be eligible to take part in the program:

“In particular, the Buy-Back Program will ensure that all types of tribal communities are participating in all phases of the program – including tribes that do not have large numbers of fractionated lands, the Interior Department said. “Ensuring this type of tribal diversity in the Buy-Back Program was an important and frequently raised issue by tribal nations through consultation sessions, and it will be a key consideration in setting priorities.”

To ensure that the buy-back program will be implemented at as many locations as possible (including less-fractionated locations), purchase ceilings will be used to avoid premature exhaustion of funds.

To encourage sales, the buy-back program will pay landowners $75 per offer, regardless of the value of the land, based on estimates of how much time and effort it will take for individual landowners to go through the acquisition process.

As an additional incentive for individuals to transfer their fractional interests, each sale will trigger payments (up to $60 million) to a scholarship fund for higher education for American Indian and Alaska Natives.

The Interior Department says there are approximately 150 unique Indian reservations that have fractional interests. Approximately 90 percent of the fractionated lands available to purchase are in 40 of those 150 locations.

“The Department looks forward to working cooperatively with the tribes and individuals involved to reduce the number of fractional interests through voluntary land sales,” a news release said. “Consolidating trust land bases will facilitate conservation, stewardship, and beneficial use through sovereign nations.”

The $1.9 billion to be used for land buy-back is part of the government’s $3.4 billion Cobell settlement to compensate for decades of mismanaging Indian lands. Another $1.5 billion was used to compensate those who were part of a 1996 class-action lawsuit.

The Cobell settlement was approved by Congress on November 30, 2010 (The Claims Resolution Act of 2010) and signed by President Obama in December 2010. A federal appeals court upheld the settlement last year.

The Interior Department says its buy-back program will proceed based on a number of factors, including the severity of fractionation, geographic location, and appraisal complexity.

The department plans to launch pilot efforts with as many as 10 reservations this year.

It says land research, valuation work, and outreach efforts are underway at several locations, including the Pine Ridge, Crow, Makah, and Sisseton-Wahpeton reservations.

“This is a program that will not be implemented overnight, but we will be thorough and tailor opportunities for the benefit of each nation,” said Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. “We must have the flexibility to learn from each buy-back effort and provide transparency for each successive tribe.”

The Department of the Interior manages almost 56 million acres of trust lands for federally-recognized tribes and individual Indians.

Later this summer, the government will launch a Buy-Back website with resources for tribal governments and individuals.

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