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Informed Decision-Making and Interior’s Land Buy-Back Program

This week, the Department of the Interior hit a significant milestone, paying more than $500 million to approximately 30,000 individual landowners through the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations (Buy-Back Program). The Buy-Back Program implements the land consolidation component of the historic Cobell Settlement, which provided $1.9 billion to purchase fractional interests in trust or restricted land from willing sellers at fair market value. As a result of actions taken to date, the equivalent of approximately 850,000 acres of land have been restored to tribal ownership, benefiting both individual landowners and Native American communities.

This is a significant achievement for the Program, which began making offers in 2013, and reflects tremendous work in partnership with tribal governments across Indian Country.

While I am happy for the individuals who have accepted land offers, I am equally encouraged by the more than 85,000 individuals who have had the opportunity to participate in the program. This is a voluntary program, but we are committed to offering this opportunity to as many individuals as we can within the ten-year timeframe established by the U.S. Congress. The last thing we want is to return any of these funds to the U.S. Treasury.

Because purchase offers are effective for 45 days, landowners receive information about the program far in advance of its implementation at their location. We are focused on ensuring that landowners are given adequate time and opportunity to discuss participation with their family and community in order to make informed decisions about the potential sale of their land.

We know that selling land is a deeply personal decision that has impacts for both the landowner and the tribal community.

During our 2015 Listening Session, one tribal leader explained how the program had personally affected their family: “I’m an allottee, but I chose not to sell. But two of my children did – my daughter needed a home and with the proceeds from her interests she was able to buy herself a home. And I said, ‘Well, you keep that home. You’re getting this money back, but more importantly, that land that’s coming to the tribe is going to return to you anyway. It belongs to you, and your children and your children’s children are going to receive benefits from that land.”

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As indicated by that tribal leader, the Buy-Back Program benefits the tribal community as a whole, in addition to individual landowners. Choosing to sell interests results in land consolidation, which enables tribes to manage and use reservation lands for the benefit of the community and generations to come.

Reducing fractionation reinforces the cultural and economic future of tribes. Consolidating and returning these lands to tribes in trust has enormous potential to improve tribal community resources by increasing home site locations, improving transportation routes, spurring tribal economic development, and preserving traditional cultural or ceremonial sites.

We’re already seeing the difference this program is making. The Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation is embarking on a $9 million housing program, aided by the recent acquisition of land through the Buy-Back Program. Consolidation has also enabled the Gila River Indian Community to pursue an electrical transmission utility corridor on the Community’s reservation. We look forward to supporting similar tribal projects and initiatives as the program moves forward.

We also know that it is critical to provide financial training, including budgeting, investing and planning for the future, to empower beneficiaries to grow and sustain personal wealth. For those landowners who choose to sell their land, it is important to think strategically about how to use the funds received. The proceeds of a land sale represent the land’s legacy, and the funds can offer both long- and short-term benefits. If a landowner chooses not to sell, there are additional considerations and preparations for estate planning to ensure that fractional interests are passed down to family members.

The Department is taking significant and lasting steps toward fulfilling President Obama’s goal of strengthening and investing in tribal communities through this exceptional opportunity. The Buy-Back Program is another example of this Administration’s commitment to provide more sustainability for landowners, their families, and tribal communities for the benefit of generations to come.

Landowners can contact Interior’s Trust Beneficiary Call Center at 888-678-6836 to learn about financial planning resources or to ask questions about the Buy-Back Program. Individuals can also visit their local Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) or Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office, or find more information at http://www.doi.gov/buybackprogram/landowners.

Michael L. Connor is the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior.