Report: BIA slow and inaccurate on land into trust applications

WASHINGTON – The BIA takes an average of more than a year to process a request to take non-gaming land into trust status, and the data in its database were “frequently incomplete and inaccurate,” a congressional report has found.

This report follows another one last year by the Department of the Interior, which found that requests to take land into trust status for gaming purposes took about an average of 17 months to decide.

The General Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, acknowledged that BIA did get around to processing all 87 requests it studied for the year 2005, and approved just about all of them. And it reported that BIA’s efforts “should improve the processing of land in trust applications.”

However, one of them was approved after a processing time of almost 19 years. And completed applications remained stranded in a bureaucratic pipeline – as of Sept. 30, 2005, 28 off-reservation applications waiting for an average of 1.4 years apiece, and 34 appeals waiting an average of three years, for a decision by a BIA regional director, GAO found.

As a result, GAO has made some recommendations “to improve the timeliness and transparency of the land in trust process and to ensure that BIA has accurate and reliable data in the land in trust database.”

GAO noted that BIA has agreed with its findings and recommendations.

The agency further noted that BIA has no guidelines on timeliness of these applications, but is considering a six-month time frame. “In addition, there is also a 60-day time frame for BIA regional directors to rule on appeals. Based on these time frames, it appears that many land in trust applications have not been processed in a timely manner.”

As for the database, the congressional investigators found it to be “hastily developed without defining user requirements and data fields.” As a result, not all the applications had been entered into the database, and the status of the applications was frequently incorrectly marked.

GAO said BIA has acknowledged the data deficiencies “and initiated an effort to redesign the database as necessary.”

Converting land to trust status is a controversial issue, with state and local governments often opposed to it as they lose tax ratables. American Indian land experts are passionate advocates of using this technique to regain some of many million acres of Indian land lost over the years.

Of the 87 applications processed in 2005, just one was denied and six withdrawn, meaning more than 90 percent were approved. While GAO did not provide numbers on how much land went into trust status, it did give the total acreage under request. It said the 87 requests covered “more than 5,800 acres for 31 tribes or their members in 12 states.”

Surprisingly to those who think Indian land continues to be inexorably lost, GAO said that since 1934, “the total acreage held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of tribes and their members has increased from about 49 million to about 54 million.”

BIA’s different regions varied widely in median processing times for cases, GAO found. The Northwest region took the longest, 6.1 years, while the Eastern Oklahoma and Rocky Mountain regions averaged one year apiece. The Pacific region was the one that weighed the longest over an application, taking almost 19 years to approve it. The appeals backlog of 34 is mainly in the Southern Plains office, which has 28 of them.

Most of the 87 requests processed in 2005 were for small parcels of land. The largest of them, 800 acres, involved individual members of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. They sought the decision to use the land for agriculture, and had to wait 224 days for a positive verdict.

Other proposed uses of converted land included housing, water treatment projects, protection of cultural and historical sites, hunting, tribal government offices, community centers, farmland and grazing land.

Oddly, “non-gaming” transfers can include gaming-related purposes, such as parking lots adjacent to casinos, as long as no gaming takes place on them.