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Tribes irked by slow start to U.S. land buyback program

WASHINGTON – Is 10 years enough time to buy 10 million acres of land?

Maybe not, at least for the U.S. government.

Many of the nation’s tribal leaders say the Obama administration is moving far too slowly with a massive plan to spend $1.9 billion to buy back thousands of parcels of land that have been sold over the years on U.S. Indian reservations.

Congress signed off on the huge land buy in 2010 to settle a lawsuit, after royalties from Indian land never made it back to the tribes as promised.

Since the program officially launched in 2012, the Department of Interior has focused the bulk of its work on just three tribes. It has made its first offers to landowners on the Makah reservation in Washington state and the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. Appraisal work is underway on three other reservations in Montana.

But critics fear the department won’t have enough time to meet its goal of buying land for at least 150 tribes before the program expires in 2022.

“When you’re dealing with the federal bureaucracy, it isn’t enough, and tribes know that better than anybody. … We’re looking at eight years left, only three tribes down,” said Michael Finley, of Inchelium, Wash., chairman of the Colville tribe in Washington state.

As part of the settlement, Congress agreed to buy up to 10 million additional acres to hold in trust for U.S. tribes. That’s about twice the size of Massachusetts, making it the largest expansion ever proposed for the government’s tribal land trust, which now covers 46 million acres. Forty tribes account for 90 percent of the targeted land.

The land troubles date back to the General Allotment Act of 1887, which gave parcels to individual tribal members, often in tracts of 80 to 160 acres. While the government promised to account for royalties generated from such things as grazing or logging, the money never helped tribal members, which resulted in the lawsuit.

But buying the property back has proved to be no easy endeavor.

With parcels changing hands multiple times over the decades, many now have hundreds or thousands of owners. Tribal leaders say that has made it difficult to get permission to use reservation land for economic development or other projects.

On the 36,000-acre Makah reservation in Neah Bay, Wash., on a swath of land dominated by timber, tribal chairman Timothy Greene said that tribal officials have found parcels that measure only a few square feet in size.

“When people pass on without a will or anything and they have kids, it just gets divided evenly,” Greene said.

And when federal officials began investigating who had title to all the land on the Pine Ridge reservation, they discovered owners in all 50 states and Canada, Germany, England, Italy, Qatar, Taiwan and the Philippines.

“I think that’s pretty standard for all of Indian Country,” said Greene, who called the buyback “an immense undertaking.”

But unlike many tribal leaders, he’s happy with its start.

“We’re up and running,” Greene said. “The big thing for us is that this land can be managed. Because the way it stands right now, with all the divided interests, it’s tough. … This is just part of trying to right a wrong that was done in the past.”

Interior officials say they’re working diligently, hiring 59 employees so far to oversee the effort and sending out purchase offers to 19,000 landowners.

“We are working as fast as we can,” said Lawrence Roberts, an assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Interior Department, testifying at an April 3 House subcommittee hearing.

The largest payouts are expected on the Pine Ridge reservation, where the government estimates it will cost $126 million to buy back nearly 1.2 million acres. Most of the land eyed for acquisition is in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions, but federal officials say it’s a voluntary program and that no one will be forced to sell their land.

Many tribal leaders want more control in closing the land deals. They say they could do a better job if the federal government just gave them the money, saying they’re positioned to track down willing sellers and get the work done in time.

“By and large, we know who they are, more so than somebody behind a desk in Washington, D.C.,” Finley said.

Finley said the Colville tribe is particularly eager to consolidate ownership of its Mill Bay Casino site on Lake Chelan, because it now pays leasing fees to multiple owners. He said his tribe is doing all it can to get prepared for the buyback and wants to be ready to “flip the switch” whenever federal officials are ready to do business.

“We can only hope that it happens soon, before the 10-year window elapses,” Finley said.

But Finley and others complain that it’s even hard to get the attention of federal officials who are running the operation.

“They just won’t respond,” said John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma. “The sad thing is it’s not that difficult. Indian tribal members are willing to sell, and tribes are more than willing to take it.”

He also expressed skepticism that the 10-year deadline will be met – “not at the current rate,” he said of the deadline.

It’s a source of frustration for Finley, who said tribal leaders have been left “twiddling our thumbs, dialing that 1-800 number.”

Tribal leaders took their complaints to Capitol Hill earlier this month.

“The way this thing is going now, it’s not working,” Mark Azure, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council in Montana, told the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.

Berrey told the lawmakers that members of the Quapaw Tribe are excited to participate and that the tribe has already done much of the paperwork needed to transfer property.

“They ask me every day: ‘When are they going to get to sell their land?’ ” Berrey said. “Because they need the money. … Not all of our tribal members have a lot of cash, and they see this as an opportunity to better their families and maybe even buy some food or electricity.”