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Asst. Sec'y for Indian Affairs Explains Interior's Land Buy-Back Plan

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Late last year, the Department of the Interior was given the green light to work with Indian country to purchase fractionated trust lands or restricted interests from willing sellers at fair market value. Every acre purchased through this Land Buy-Back Program will be held in trust or restricted status for tribes. The success of this program is vitally important to the future of Indian country. I believe wholeheartedly that this work can and will succeed, but only with the collaborative involvement of tribal leaders and their communities.

Every year thousands of acres of land go out of trust simply because fractionated interests are passed on to non-Indian heirs. The Land Buy-Back Program will stop this loss of Indian lands by transferring those interests to the tribe—forever preventing further fractionation. Returning these lands to tribes through purchases from willing sellers has enormous potential to spur economic development and restore tribal homelands.

We have heard from Tribal leaders that we must implement the Buy-Back Program in a fair and equitable manner. Tribal leaders have stressed the urgency of moving quickly to ensure that we reach as much of Indian country as possible. We have heard the call to implement lessons learned as we move across Indian country. And we have heard loud and clear that we have a responsibility to minimize administrative costs so that the maximum amount of money is used to consolidate tribal lands through voluntary purchases from individual owners.

The task ahead is complex. Across Indian country, more than 150 unique reservations have fractionated lands and thousands of potentially interested landowners. Through government-to-government consultations and meetings with tribal communities, we have repeatedly heard that the needs and circumstances vary dramatically across Indian country.

Some tribes want to be among the first to receive purchase offers from the Buy-Back Program. While we cannot start everywhere at once, we are heartened by this interest in the Program and want to assure tribes that outreach will continue and additional locations will be added into the Program on a rolling basis as efforts continue. To ensure that the Buy-Back Program will reach as many locations as possible, flexible purchase ceilings have been set for land purchases on each reservation to ensure that the funds are not spent at only a handful of locations.

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We have heard from some that tribes, not the Department, should implement the program. If you know me, you know that my guiding principle is that tribal governments do a better job of implementing federal programs through 638 contracts and self-governance compacts. The law, however, forbids us from using those mechanisms for this program. Given this legal reality, my goal is to stay true to my guiding principle and use cooperative agreements to maximize tribal participation for those parts of the program where it will be most cost effective to do so.

Maximizing tribal engagement and offering the greatest flexibility for each tribal nation to determine how to best implement the Program in its community are critical. We will do this through cooperative agreements. Together, we will look for efficiencies at each location. Due to the large scope of the task ahead, we will utilize mass appraisal techniques where appropriate and automate the acquisition process. These cost saving measures will allow us to transfer more land to tribes and ensure that resources are devoted to critical program components such as outreach by which tribes can efficiently communicate to their members the lasting positive impact of land consolidation for future generations. Implementation costs will be tailored to the needs of each location to maximize the amount spent on the purchase of land.

The Program ultimately will strengthen tribal sovereignty by placing decision-making in the hands of tribal governments. It will free up resources that have been locked-up as land interests have fractionated exponentially over time. In the meantime, tribal governments will be guiding implementation on their reservations.

Interior and Indian country have been given a rare opportunity to work together—government-to-government—with substantial resources to solve a very serious problem. We have already begun work with several tribes and will be engaging with more tribes in the coming weeks. We have a very difficult problem to address and we must work smart —together—to solve it. Let’s maximize this incredible opportunity to make a difference for Indian country.

Kevin K. Washburn is the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior and a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma.