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Land backlogs at Interior re-examined

WASHINGTON – Bureaucracy at the Interior Department, resulting in backlogs that can quash economic development on tribal lands, is gaining renewed negative attention from Congress.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, held Dec. 9, more light was shone on Interior’s processing of land transactions and the hampered ability of tribes and individual Indians to use their land and engage in economic endeavors.

The committee previously looked into the issue in 2007 and 2008.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chair of the committee, said there had been progress on the issue between those two hearings, but he wanted to address it again now that Larry EchoHawk, new assistant secretary of Indian affairs, is in place.

“It seems to me, we are close to being back to square one,” Dorgan said, later adding that the department tends to focus on the issue when congressional hearings are held, but then becomes more lax.

He noted that the committee has heard from tribal leaders that applications involving land developments sometimes sit for years at Interior without movement, then come back with request for more current information.

Two applications from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been pending for more than a decade, Dorgan said.

Derek Bailey, chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, testified that his tribe has eight trust acquisition requests pending with the department, some of which have been pending for more than 15 years.

Bailey called the situation “mind boggling.” He suggested that Interior should be required to act within a specific timeframe on trust acquisitions. If it fails to do so, he said it should acquire trust status by operation of law.

Similar backlogs involving tribal environmental impact statements also plague the agency.

George Skibine, principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian affairs, testified that “significant progress” has occurred in processing land into trust requests.

Skibine said the department has currently received a total of 1,935 requests. As a result of the standardization and streamlining efforts, he said, 454 of the requests have been completed or withdrawn by the application and determinations have been made on 342.

He said the February Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar has presented Interior with an additional challenge, indicating the ruling has disrupted the process for acquiring land into trust for recognized tribes by imposing new and undefined requirements on applications now pending. He noted that the department supports a legislative fix.

Carl Artman, the previous assistant secretary of Indian affairs, testified that the land into trust backlogs had improved under his tenure, but he said work remained to be done on leasing and appraisal developments.

He said Interior’s best resources are its people, and they should be empowered to do their best by enforcing performance goals and objectives.

Dorgan said another hearing on progress on the backlogs will be held in six months.