A former top Obama administration Indian Affairs official is taking issue with a Trump administration claim that its fiscal year 2018 budget would not harm tribal land acquisitions at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Kevin Washburn, assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs from 2012 to 2016, says that President Donald Trump’s Interior budget, released in late May, includes $15 million in cuts to programs that aid Interior in taking land into trust for tribes.
Heather Swift, a spokesperson for Interior, told ICMN upon the budget’s release that federal Indian-related land acquisition initiatives would be untouched. She said that $129 million in land acquisition cuts would come through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which she added, “does not support land acquisition for tribal lands.” She said the savings here would allow “the department to prioritize operations across the department including in Indian affairs.”
While what Swift said is technically true, Washburn says it’s important to note that there are $15 million in reductions proposed under the heading of “real estate services” that negatively impact federal tribal land acquisition. Swift did not reference the $15 million loss when asked several times about tribal land acquisition reductions in the budget.
“Trump’s budget explicitly cuts funds associated with land acquisition because ‘real estate services’ is the primary unit that does the land into trust processing and then manages the land that is in trust,” Washburn says.
Washburn added that the existing Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) appropriations related to taking land into trust would indeed be cut, including the costs of managing the National Environmental Policy Act process and the staff on the federal side to manage the process.
Why Swift did not mention the $15 million land acquisition decrease when asked whether any of the Trump budget would reduce funds for tribal land acquisitions is unclear. She has not responded to requests for further comment, nor has the White House.
Washburn, who had a legendary in-person showdown in 2015 with U.S. Rep Don Young (R-AK) over land-into-trust and tribal recognition issues, shed light on the actual costs of land acquisition on the federal side. “When the U.S. takes land into trust, the U.S. government is not buying the land, so the BIA has not tended (for many years) to spend federal money on the actual acquisition of land,” he said. “In the Obama administration, we did not have much money for the actual purchase of land.”
Washburn further said that actual land acquisition monies, beyond the “real estate services” funds, were zero during the Obama administration, and they are likely to continue to be zero in the Trump administration (Swift has not responded to a question about the exact number), so it would be quite difficult for the Trump administration to propose any more reductions here.
“Maintaining zero funding is not a cut, but this cannot be characterized as ‘protection of land into trust,’ because they did cut the only relevant funds,” Washburn said.
“The BIA simply tends to ‘take into trust’ lands that tribes already own in fee simple,” he added. “Tribes tend to purchase or already own the land, but the BIA takes the land into trust to remove the land from county tax rolls. Taking the land into trust benefits the tribe by shielding the land federally from state and county taxation and regulation.”
The Obama administration restored more than a half million acres of tribal homelands via federal land acquisitions. Many in Indian country fear a backlash coming from the Trump administration on this front, because officials associated with the Trump transition and administration have indicated they wish to privatize and perhaps even reduce tribal lands.