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Tribal leaders and senators concerned with BIA deadline

WASHINGTON - Members of the U.S. Senate and tribal leaders from across the country are expressing their concern over BIA handling of proposed regulations on trust funds, leasing and grazing.

A letter signed by 18 U.S. Senators was recently sent to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calling for a halt on what some see as "fast track" efforts to revise a broad range of regulations.

"The Department should not measure success based on whether these proposed regulations become final in the next four months," said Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, in the joint letter.

"Instead it should direct its efforts at ensuring that the next administration can begin its work on trust funds with a comprehensive and thorough draft set of regulations."

Interior proposed the revision of four sets of regulations in July and plans to publish the rules in final form by January 2001. The BIA says that the revisions are meant to "further fulfill" the Secretary of Interior's fiduciary responsibility to tribes and individual Indians.

A BIA statement indicates revisions would expedite the probate process for Indian descendants' estates, standardize the process for collection, distribution and accounting of individual Indian monies and monies held in trust for tribal governments, implement the Indian Agricultural Resource Management Act, determine the value of leases, and standardize the Department's policy on grazing permits. The deadline for comments was Oct. 12.

Some tribal leaders say that, as written, the proposed regulations would diminish or obscure the federal government's trust responsibilities rather than guide how the United States carries out its trust duties. They also say that the BIA has placed an unreasonable time frame on the revision process. Tribal leaders have repeatedly requested a negotiated rule-making process based on consensus.

"We have participated and observed the tribal consultation process as it has occurred so far and have found it to be ineffective and deficient for the scope and complexity of the regulations," said Charles Tillman, chief of the Osage Nation and co-chairman of a joint BIA/Tribal workgroup formed to consider the proposed regulations.

"At every stage of the discussion between the tribes and the department, the Department has been too focused on its self-imposed timetables to consider the merits of our substantive proposals."

Chief Tillman also accuses the BIA of being poorly organized and "incomprehensibly muddled" on the issues. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association (ITMA) also outlined concerns on the process in a joint letter to Secretary Babbitt.

In that letter, they expressed their belief that pressure caused by Cobell vs. Babbitt, the ongoing tribal trust funds lawsuit, was having a negative impact on the proposed regulations. The organizations contend the pressures of the high-profile litigation have caused BIA staff to attempt to avoid responsibility and diminish the government's trust responsibilities "whenever possible."

Interior has yet to respond to requests for a halt to the current process and is expected to close the period for comment as scheduled.

NCAI and ITMA are calling on tribes to submit as many comments as possible to slow the process and force further consideration of tribal positions.

"The proposed regulations will have a profound effect on the management of fifty-four million acres of Indian trust lands and the administration of trust funds derived from those lands," Chief Tillman said. "The Department of Interior must initiate a consensus based negotiated rule-making process."