WASHINGTON –The Department of the Interior has signaled that it will soon publish a Federal Register notice announcing its intent to begin formal government-to-government consultations with tribal leaders on land consolidation components involving a confusing area of the Cobell settlement. The consultations are expected to begin by late-summer.
In a press release dated June 1, Interior officials noted that Judge Thomas F. Hogan, in response to a motion on behalf of the agency, has granted permission for Interior officials to begin communicating with Cobell class members on land trust consolidation provisions.
The $3.4 billion Cobell settlement, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, contains language that develops a $1.9 billion “land consolidation” program to be managed by the Department of the Interior. It is intended to achieve voluntary buy-back and consolidation of fractionated land interests of Indian parties involved in the case.
“The land consolidation program will provide individual American Indians with an opportunity to obtain cash payments for divided land interests and free up the land for the benefit of tribal communities,” according to the Interior release. “Individual Indians will receive cash payments for these transfers and, as an additional incentive, transfers will trigger government payments into a $60 million Indian scholarship fund.”
As Indian Country Today previously reported, the details of the plan have long been murky and not easily understood, leading to calls for tribal consultation. “Indians were quick to note that this seemingly complicated program would be run by the very agency that had so horribly mismanaged their royalties in the first place, and that implementation would require years of careful analysis—the very kind of scrutiny Interior resisted over the course of the 14-year-long Cobell case,” ICTMN reported in January.
“On top of those concerns, no one has explained what would happen if Interior was slow in spending the $1.9 billion, or if there were not enough individuals eager to sell their lands to an agency that many of them distrust. Would the money revert back to the government, as the settlement documents suggest? Interior officials have said answers will come—but won’t say when.”
The Interior press release issued June 1 shed some light on the missing details, explaining that Interior officials have been under “a longstanding court imposed prohibition from communicating with Cobell class members while the litigation continues.”
Hogan’s order allowing for communication between the parties states that, “This case has materially changed since the date of any other order that may have prohibited such communication. The case’s posture now compels the Court to grant the motion.”
The Cobell settlement is aimed at addressing the federal government’s mismanagement of trust accounts and trust assets maintained by the United States on behalf of more than 300,000 individual Indians. Beyond the land consolidation funds, $1.5 billion is designated to compensate class members for their historical accounting, trust fund and asset mismanagement claims. Hogan’s court is presiding over a fairness hearing involving the settlement on June 20.
The court documents filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of Interior are online at http://www.doi.gov/tribes/special-trustee.cfm.