DOI gives update on land consolidation program under Cobell

The Interior Department will start implementing the land consolidation portion of the $3.4 billion Cobell trust fund settlement by the end of this year, officials said today.

The settlement provides $1.9 billion to buy fractionated interests from willing Indian sellers. The land will be returned to tribal governments as part of the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.

“Our plan is to begin … initial purchase offers by the end of the year,” deputy secretary David Hayes, who is leaving the department at the end of the month, said on a conference call this afternoon. “We expect to accelerate that process in the next two or three years.”

As part of the effort, the department has established an oversight board that is chaired by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Members include Solicitor Hilary Tompkins and Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“This is one of the most important parts of President Obama’s agenda,” Washburn said of the effort to restore tribal homelands.

Washburn said ten to 12 reservations are being targeted for initial offers by the end of the year. They include the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the Makah Nation in Washington, the Crow Reservation in Montana and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation in South Dakota.

The administration is finalizing cooperative agreements with tribes to encourage and accelerate the purchases. “That means the tribal employees will be doing a heck of a lot of the work on this program,” Washburn said.

Additionally, the department has established a $75 minimum purchase for fractionated interests “no matter how small,” Hayes said on the conference call. So beneficiaries with extremely small ownership stakes stand to gain from the program.

While certain tribes are being targeted, Hayes said landowners across Indian Country will be able to participate because the department has imposed a purchase ceiling to prevent the funds from being exhausted in any one reservation or reservations.

“We heard loud and clear from Indian Country that we need to have equity in this program — that every tribe that has fractionated interests needs to be able to participate in this program,’ Hayes said. “And that is our commitment. We are going to do that.”

“Every tribe can be assured the money will not run out” due to the purchase ceiling, Hayes said.