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Cobell Land Buy-Back Fund Four Million Acres and Billions of Dollars Short

A federal land acquisition program to benefit tribes will leave unrecovered 4 million acres of fractionated land interests when it ends in 2022.
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A federal land acquisition program to benefit tribes will leave unrecovered 4 million acres of fractionated land, reservation land divided up and allotted to individual members, interests when it ends in 2022, according to the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations’ 2016 Status Report released November 1.

That is, unless the Interior Department and Congress can find a way to extend the program and increase its funding by several billion dollars.

The $1.9 billion Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations was established in 2012 as part of the 2009 settlement of a lawsuit against the federal government alleging it had mismanaged individual American Indian trust funds. So far, the program has paid out $900 million to purchase the equivalent of 1.7 million acres of land and put it under tribal, rather than individual, control.

The $900 million was paid to individual landowners who voluntarily sold their fractionated land interests at fair market value in order that those acres be restored to tribes as useable, productive trust lands. The land consolidation program is intended to support tribal sovereignty by helping tribal governments protect cultural and natural resources, provide services and facilities for their members and create economic development opportunities.

The Interior Department has identified 105 locations in 13 Western states for land buy-back activities through 2021.

Tracts of land across Indian country became fractionated as a result of a failed federal policy that transferred land from tribal to individual ownership. Individuals were allotted specific tracts of land under the Dawes Act of 1887. When those individual owners died, their land holdings were divided among their heirs, a practice that continued down through the generations, splitting the allotments into smaller and smaller pieces owned by more and more individuals.

By 1934, when the policy was repealed by the Indian Reorganization Act, 90 million acres of Indian trust land had been lost to allotments.

Fractionation makes it nearly impossible to use land productively – imagine trying to rent a piece of land owned by dozens of different individuals, some of whose names and whereabouts are unknown -- and royalties from any federally managed leases on the lands must be divided among hundreds or thousands of owners.

Those royalties and other fees were supposed to be held in trust for the individual allotment owners by the federal government, but the government failed to keep track of the moneys adequately. Elouise Cobell, Blackfeet, in 1996 sued on behalf of a half million Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders who had not been receiving the payments to which they were entitled. The case was settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion.

The Cobell Settlement Agreement stipulated a $1.9 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund. Of that amount, $1.555 billion is earmarked for purchasing fractionated land interests from individual owners. Implementation costs are paid out of the fund and a maximum of $60 million has been set aside for the Cobell Scholarship Fund, to be transferred to the fund as a percentage of the land purchases as they occur. IIM account holders received $1.4 billion of the settlement directly.

In May, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that the Land Consolidation Fund would not cover the costs of purchasing all of the fractionated land interests out there in Indian country. The shortfall is estimated at 4 million acres and several billion dollars. She said the department would look for ways to extend the Land Buy-Back Program and directed the “Program’s Oversight Board to pursue an analysis of options to extend the life of the Program so that additional future participants may benefit and so that the Program could return to locations where implementation has already occurred,” according to the report.

The department is scheduling a fourth listening session with tribal leaders for the spring of 2017 when some preliminary ideas for continuing the program will be presented. More than 500 tribal leaders, landowners, and other individuals attended the March 2016 listening session.

The Cobell Scholarship Fund, administered by the non-profit Indigenous Education, Inc., has received $45 million so far. For summer 2016, the fund awarded 128 undergraduate and graduate students ranging in age from 20 to 60 a total of $350,557. The average award was $2,540. The Fund also recognized 10 honorary scholars, people who met all the eligibility requirements but had $0 unmet need. Twenty-nine percent of awardees were first-generation college students. Figures for the fall round scholarships are not yet available, according to Bridget Neconie, director of scholarships for Indigenous Education, Inc.

The Interior Department in is the process of developing an interactive web-based Tract Viewer to assist landowners in finding the location of the tracts of land in which they own fractional interests by inputting their Tract ID. “Landowners will be able to use the tool to zoom in and out of a map to see a tract’s geographic location. The tool will also include township, range, section, county, state, and acreage data. Field staff will also be able to use the tool to assist landowners with questions regarding their land,” says the report.

Tribes, landowners, and others may provide written feedback on the Land Buy-Back Program by email to buybackprogram@ios.doi.gov or by mail (U.S. Department of the Interior Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, 1849 C Street NW, MS-5552-MIB, Washington, DC 20240).

Landowners may contact the Trust Beneficiary Call Center at (888) 678-6836 or visit their local Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) to ask questions about their land or purchase offers, and learn about financial planning resources.