Since 2012, the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act (HEARTH Act) has been helping tribes improve and develop their own laws governing leasing of federal tribal trust lands for residential, business, renewable energy and other purposes. On Thursday, the Seminole Tribe of Florida became the first federally recognized tribe of 2015 to be formally approved under the Act.
As part of President Barack Obama’s commitment to empowering American Indian and Alaska Native tribal nations, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Michael Black joined James E. Billie, Seminole chairman, in a signing ceremony. The ceremony officially gives the tribe the right to set leasing regulations that will help spur investment and commercial development on the Seminole Tribe's reservation according to an Interior press release.
“The Seminole Tribe of Florida will now decide for itself how it wants to do business on its lands – from making it easier for families to buy and build houses to opening businesses in the communities where they have lived for generations,” said Secretary Jewell, who also serves as chair of the White House Council on Native American Affairs. “Today’s agreement will encourage economic development and help create jobs while strengthening tribal sovereignty and self-determination by putting these decisions back in the hands of the tribe.”
“This is an important day for the Seminole Tribe, which will be able to process residential and business leases without the need for BIA approval,” Billie said. “This authority will allow the tribe to better serve its members and create new opportunities for economic development on the tribe’s reservations. We appreciate the Department’s assistance in working with the tribe through the approval process.”
“The Seminole Tribe’s endeavors contribute to the local, state and regional economies and the tribe’s leasing initiative will further that economic vitality and contribution,” Black said.
The Seminole Nation of Florida covers six component reservations: Big Cypress, Brighton, Fort Pierce, Hollywood, Immokalee and Tampa. Government officials from all reservations as well as tribal council members were in attendance for the signing ceremony held at Seminole Nation headquarters.
Plans have already been discussed by the tribe, who will look to put its new authority to use for business, residential and biomass energy development projects. Other projects being discussed are: cultural, educational, recreational, spiritual and more.
The Seminoles are the 15 tribe since the Act was signed into law in 2012. There are an additional 14 other tribes currently waiting for approval. A complete list can be seen here.
When the HEARTH Act was passed in 2012 it paralleled an effort by Interior to overhaul and streamline the BIA regulations for tribal leasing. Interior currently serves as trustee to about 56 million surface acres in Indian country. New regulations were finalized in December of 2012 ultimately changing the way the BIA has done business in Indian country by “providing clarity by identifying specific processes – with enforceable timelines – through which the BIA must review leases,” the press release states.
In an October 2013 column for ICTMN, John Tabinaca Plata, Comanche Nation of Oklahoma and partner with Hobbs, Straus, Dean and Walker, LLP in Washington, D.C. said, “While securing lease approval authority under the HEARTH Act does not provide a cure-all for tribal leasing concerns – it is an excellent start.”