ICTMN Exclusive: Interior’s Mike Connor Discusses Tribal Land Buy-Back Program

Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor today publicly reviewed the status of the department’s Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.
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Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor today publicly reviewed the status of the department’s Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations. The program, established under the Cobell settlement with the intent of consolidating tribal lands divided among many individual owners as a result of the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, has been in operation for two years.

Connor granted ICTMN an exclusive interview on the progress of the $1.9-billion effort.

Could you give a quick overview on where the Land Buy-Back Program stands at the moment?

The program’s 2014 status report shows that so far $225 million has been made available to individuals to purchase their fractionated interests in land holdings and we have consolidated 375,000 acres of fractionated lands into tribal ownership. We have just announced an additional 21 reservations with which we will be working through the middle of 2017. That brings the total number of reservations to 42, which represent 83 percent of all outstanding fractional interests and 15 of the 19 states with fractional interests. It’s a good chunk of the people who are eligible to participate in the program

Are you on track to dispense all the $1.9 billion available for the program within the 10-year time frame specified in the Cobell settlement?

We are hopeful and we are optimistic. As we move through the program and improve our outreach efforts, we’re increasing the acceptance rate on the offers that we’re making. Given the growth in the program of late, we are confident that we can expend the money provided by the program and ensure that we don’t return any money to the U.S. Treasury at the end of the program in 2022.

The $1.9 billion in the buy-back program is basically in three buckets. The vast majority, $1.6 billion, will go for purchases, payments made out to individuals. The individuals will get the value for their fractionated interest and then the land immediately goes into tribal ownership. The second bucket is the 15-percent allowance for administrative costs, [some of which goes to tribal governments under cooperative agreements]. Our goal is to do that as efficiently as possible and if we can make any of those resources available for purchasing fractionated interests we will certainly do so. And then the last amount of money is $60 million that can be made available for the Cobell Scholarship Fund. We’re at $4.5 million in deposits [to the scholarship fund] that we’ve made so far.

DOI is reported to have said it expects a 30-percent acceptance rate for buy-back offers sent to individuals. Is that about what you are getting?

Early on we were at about 30 percent. We’re now up to 42 percent, based on the dollar value of the offers we’ve made. You know, this is a voluntary program. Our job is to make sure people are aware of the historic opportunity that’s available now to get value for their fractionated interests. But at the end of the day, that’s their decision to make.

While the buy-back program is voluntary, some concern has been raised that it will lead to forced sales of lands owned by individuals after a tribe obtains a 51-percent interest in that land. Could you comment?

I think that would depend a lot on how the tribe moves forward with its members. That’s not what the money associated with the buy-back program will do. The tribes in their own sovereignty will have to work in their communities to move forward with their programs and activities they want to do with respect to the lands they’ve consolidated.

Is it true though that federal law would allow the tribes to force landowners to sell once the tribe had a 51-percent interest?

I think so, but let me get some advice on that. [An official within the U.S. Department of Interior later told ICTMN via email: “The statute you may have been referring to, which dates back to 2000, is pursuant to the terms of 25 U.S. Code § 2204 (b). Secretarial approval is required for such tribal purchases, unless the tribe already has in effect an approved land consolidation plan.”]

Could you describe some of the benefits tribes have derived from the program in terms of economic development or housing?

We’ve seen some very good projects like what’s been done on Pine Ridge [where the Oglala Sioux Tribe recently announced that the tribe is embarking on a $9 million housing program, aided by the recent acquisition of land through the Buy-Back Program].

In addition to the Pine Ridge example, I know that Gila River is looking at some energy development projects and has a utility corridor that they have prioritized to ensure that they can move forward. That’s where they’ve focused a lot of the buy-back program efforts, so the program is helping them move forward with economic development.

Do you have any estimate of how many acres you will be able to buy back altogether with the $1.9 billion?

We have the overall metrics of approximately 245,000 owners, we’ve got 3 million fractional interests and we’ve got 150 reservations, 40 of which comprise about 90 percent of the fractional interest. We have not summed up what we think the overall acreage possibility is.

Is it true, as some have said, that tribes east of the Mississippi River and in California (with one exception) and Alaska have been excluded from the program?

I don’t think we’ve excluded anybody who’s eligible where we’ve identified fractionated interests. That defines the eligibility for the program, whether there are those fractionated interests within the tribal lands. Alaska is excluded by statute. The program doesn’t apply there.

As I mentioned, we’ve identified 42 reservations so far. Overall, we’ve identified 150 reservations eligible to operate the program. We will be continuing to expand the list of communities that we’re working with. This is a 10-year program and we’re now a little over two years in its development, so additional reservations will be added as we move forward.

Could you detail the process that you and tribes are going through together to identify fractionated lands and decide which tracts you are going to make offers on?

We’ve identified a number of factors that we weigh as we’re determining what reservations we’re moving forward with. Those factors were identified as a result of consultations with tribes and we’ve identified these factors in our implementation plan. Severity of fractionation is a primary factor. Forty of the 150 eligible reservations comprise about 90 percent of the fractionated interests, so we want to hit those reservations that are highly fractionated.

Also, for efficiency purposes, we’re looking at groupings of reservations where there’s a high degree of overlap within the reservations undefined. That’s one factor in why Pine Ridge and Rosebud were selected early on.

We wanted have a diversity of geographical locations. We’re just learning the process so we thought it was important to have a diverse group of reservations as we initiated the program.

[Another factor is] the complexity associated with the appraisals. A lot of the focus in the hearing that we had early in the summer was on appraisals being a key factor in how expeditiously we can move forward on a lot of reservations—how well positioned we are to do the mass appraisals.

And of course the overall interest of the tribe [is a factor], their engagement with the program. Their desire and willingness to enter into cooperative agreements is a big factor. We’ve identified reservations and made some assessments of individuals’ willingness to participate in the program. And then of course cost and time efficiency factors. Where are we going to get the program up and going? Where are we doing appraisals? Where can we be situated to be most efficient?

What else would you like people to know about the program?

The program helps the individuals who voluntarily want to avail themselves of the program, strengthens the tribal land base and provides economic development opportunities for tribal communities. We’re excited at the Department of Interior because the president has been strongly committed to strengthening tribal communities, as has [Interior Secretary Sally] Jewell. This program is part of the overall effort and overall strategy for working with tribal communities, strengthening tribal sovereignty and trying to do a much better job as a trustee than has been historically done.

The 2014 Status Report details opportunities for increased feedback and input from tribal communities, including a Listening Session to be hosted by Connor in March 2015.

This interview has been edited for length.