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Cobell Land Consolidation Plan to Cost $285 Million for Interior Department to Run

Officials with the U.S. Department of the Interior have confirmed that it will cost $285 million for the agency to administer the Cobell settlement’s land-consolidation plan over the next 10 years.

In a conference call with reporters on December 18, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said that the settlement terms call for 15 percent of the $1.9 billion land consolidation portion to be designated for Interior’s administrative fees, which amounts to $285 million.

“The settlement provides that 15 percent of the $1.9 billion will go toward administrative costs, so we will use that in that way,” Washburn said in response to a question from Indian Country Today Media Network. “That’s the provision for sort of paying for the process.”

The overall Cobell settlement was $3.4 billion, including the land-consolidation fund and separate monies designated for individual class members, which means that approximately 8.4 percent of the overall settlement is going back to the federal government to create the new program intended to combat land-fractionation issues on reservations.

Any of the $1.9 billion that is not spent over the next 10 years will revert back to the federal government, but Interior officials are promising that there will be no leftover money: “We are looking to spend every dime of this $1.9 billion on this problem,” said David Hayes, deputy secretary of Interior.

It was also announced that John McClanahan, a project manager at Interior, will be overseeing the administration of the program. Department policy calls for reports on this administration to go to Hayes, who said on the call that the program is meant to acquire at fair-market value fractional interests in trust or restricted lands that individual Indian land owners are willing to sell to the Department. The program is to be called the Land Buyback Program for Indian Nations, he said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar credited Hayes earlier this month with being a top proponent in the Department for getting the federal government to settle the long-running Cobell suit. Salazar also issued a secretarial order on December 17 “that establishes accountability and clear leadership obligations in the Department of the Interior,” Hayes said.

Fractionation in Indian country became a problem in Indian country starting with the federal policy of allotment in 1887, which divvied up lands to individual tribal citizens. As the parcels have been passed down through generations, fractionation has grown, with some parcels now having thousands of owners, Hayes said.

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Co-owners must approve the lease or use of such land, which has proven highly difficult given the high number of co-owners of some of these lands.

“As a result, these highly fractionated tracts typically lie idle, unable to be used for any economically beneficial purpose, or for direct use by tribal communities,” Hayes said. “The scope of this problem in Indian country is amazing.”

The goal of the program is for Interior to buy back such lands and then put them into trust for tribes.

“We will be unlocking those lands for tribal use,” Hayes said, although firm details on how tribal citizens will be approached and enticed to sell their individual land interests to the federal government – a touchy subject in Indian country – have not yet been explained.

Past programs that Interior has managed with that intention have been largely unsuccessful to date. Administrative issues, tribal complaints about liens, and resistance among some individual landowners to give up their claims have all been part of the problem.

“We only have $1.9 billion, and that may not be quite enough to address all the problems out there, so we are being very careful in how we develop our strategy,” Washburn said of the attempt to get it right this time around. “We are going to be working very closely with the tribes where we go to implement these plans.”

Washburn also said the plan is to spend most of the money in the next four years, and that he hopes there will be no funds leftover to revert to the federal government.

Tribal consultation sessions are scheduled on the initial implementation of the plan, Washburn added.

Interior officials said that the bulk of the buy-back program will be focused on 40 reservations in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain areas that have been determined to have the most fractionation. Interior officials have estimated that up to 150 reservations experience the problem overall.