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Backlogs bring Dorgan thunder down on BIA

WASHINGTON - In Carl Artman's final appearance before Congress as head of the BIA, Sen. Byron Dorgan treated him to a controlled explosion of anger at the bureau.

He didn't exempt Artman either, reminding him that it took a roll call vote of the Senate to get him confirmed as Interior's assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. ''But we got it done.''

By contrast, Artman, who greeted his confirmation with distinctly high spirits in a speech on the occasion, resigned from his brief tenure with a great deal undone - as just about anyone in the position would, judging from various testimonials May 22 to the backlog at the Interior Department and its subsidiary agency, the BIA, of applications for everything from probating estates to land appraisal and leases, from fee land acquisitions to environmental impact statements.

''I'm terribly disappointed by that,'' Dorgan said of Artman's resignation. In view of the probable delay, during a presidential election season, in getting another permanent BIA leader confirmed, he added, ''I think this is undermining tribes across the country.''

He went over the recent history of brief-tenured BIA chiefs, including two who felt stymied by the BIA bureaucracy. ''In your case,'' he told Artman, ''I think you've made some progress. But frankly, I think it's less than you suggest.''

As if in proof, he confronted Artman with two instances of applications that seem to have gone astray for years now in the BIA bureaucracy. ''If they exist, you can't find them.'' In Dorgan's view, Artman hasn't righted the ship on their account, despite a fall 2007 SCIA hearing that found a shortage of functional tracking systems in place at the BIA. One instance involves the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the North Dakota Democrat's own home constituency, the other the Shakopee Mdewakanton in Minnesota.

Artman strove to put the best face on matters, but Dorgan was having none of it. A tracking system to keep tabs on applications, requests, etc., is a basic of doing business, he insisted, recounting his own experience when just out of college.

''How do you keep track of anything without a tracking system?''

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Dorgan has blasted the BIA before. But his May 22 outbursts were in a league of their own, coming from him, and among the fuel that produced them were two examples of how he says BIA delay has cheated tribes.

On a recent weekend visit to a lucrative oil field extending from western North Dakota into eastern Montana, Dorgan said, he learned that 18,000 barrels of oil are pumped there a day, but none from tribal lands. When he asked why, a non-Indian in the oil industry told him, '''You gotta go through a hundred hoops.'''

Once again, Dorgan remarked at the hearing, bureaucrats are denying tribes a chance to develop economically.

''They're popping up all around the reservation,'' he said of oil drilling rigs and wells. ''But not on the reservation.''

Similarly, he produced large-format aerial photographs that showed economic development before the tribe at Shakopee applied to acquire land in trust, and after - 11 years after. By that time, non-tribal development on non-trust land encircled the tribal trust holdings. ''And this tribe is, in my judgment, cheated of a chance to develop its lands.''

Though he has argued hard for more BIA staff and funding at past hearings, Dorgan didn't seem to credit them as sufficient solutions May 22, despite some of the testimony before him.

''I sometimes think maybe I should just abolish this agency and start over from scratch. ... You know, it seems to me that we have a terrible mess down there. ... How do you penetrate this bureaucratic mess? And it is a mess. It has been a mess for a long, long time.''

Artman responded in part, ''There has been some chaos and havoc over there, but we're beginning to get a handle on it.''

After the hearing, Artman said agency ''entrepreneurism'' outside the central Washington headquarters of the BIA has produced manifold system inconsistencies. He added that the BIA has been caught unprepared in changing times, unable to move at the speed of business.

Interior announced May 27 that it has appointed George Skibine, an Osage citizen with a varied portfolio in Indian affairs within Interior, as acting BIA director.