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Tribal leaders call on Congress to deny BIA funds

WASHINGTON - Tribal leaders expressed unanimous disapproval of the ongoing BIA reorganization at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing March 10.

Witnesses from throughout Indian country followed a "starve the beast" strategy of arguing against congressional appropriations for President Bush's overhaul of the troubled bureau, which is at an advanced stage operationally and politically. "Congress cannot allow this budget to stand," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota.

In addition, acknowledging the many problems plaguing the bureau, they offered a reform plan of their own.

Ross Swimmer, the special trustee on trust funds who has been the administration's point man in the reorganization process, flatly stated that reorganization - which also went by the name of realignment at the hearing - will not be stopped now, not after two years of progress. "There's no such thing as stopping realignment or reorganization. It's done."

He added that the administration is not forcing the reorganized model of trust management functions on tribes. Tribes are welcome to operate trust management programs that work for them, Swimmer said, noting that by contrast the BIA must operate programs that work universally, for all tribes at once.

"We will continue to demand that tribes that operate fiduciary trust responsibilities must meet the same standards as the [Interior] secretary."

Hall provided a detailed example of how difficult that would be for many tribes, given the budget limitations on most tribes and the long history of inadequate funding and mismanagement at the bureau. He drew on a Three Affiliated Tribes needs assessment concerning management of trust assets at the Fort Berthold BIA agency, serving the tribes' Fort Berthold reservation. A lengthy but illustrative excerpt from

his statement:

"At one point, the Fort Berthold agency employed twenty-three people ? in the agency's range department. Today ? there is only one employee available in the field to handle enforcement and compliance matters ? The last range assessment done on the Fort Berthold reservation was done in 1982 ? No conservation plans have been developed or approved by the BIA despite the issuance of grazing permits.

"Each range unit permit awarded by the BIA for tribal and allotted units has special provisions concerning the number of cattle that can be grazed on the unit and maintenance. Range technicians are responsible for ensuring permit compliance and policing the ranges for trespassing and overgrazing. The Three Affiliated Tribes has one range technician and the Fort Berthold agency presently has grazing permits issued for approximately 260,000 acres of grazing land spread over 1,376 square miles of reservation ?

"There is no appraiser at the Fort Berthold agency despite the fact that appraisals are required for farm pasture leases, grazing permits, rights-of-way, oil and gas leases, land exchanges, land sales, gift deeds, land consolidation and trespass damage ? All appraisals, with the exception of appraisals for the sale of crop land, are done ? in Rapid City [South Dakota, one large state away from Fort Berthold]. This appraiser conducts almost no on-site field appraisals of any other type of land transaction, which results in untimely and questionable evaluations.

"There is a three-year backlog of over one hundred fifty probate cases at the Fort Berthold agency. Further, it takes approximately two years to pay out the estate proceeds to heirs after a case is decided ? there is only one probate specialist at the agency.

"The Fort Berthold agency handles approximately 1,000 title records requests annually ? certified title requests take approximately six months to complete because they are being done at the regional office. This delay creates a significant backlog in land transactions and obstacles in business and economic development.

"The Fort Berthold agency has approximately 300 oil and gas leases, 100 pending, on the Fort Berthold reservation. There is a huge delay in leasing and in payouts of lease income. The Three Affiliated Tribes are positioned in the middle of a known oil field - the Williston Basin. Oil fields have been developed all around the Fort Berthold reservation. The BIA does not have the manpower to research the companies that desire to lease and therefore the tribe's interests are not adequately protected. The Fort Berthold agency has no professional staff to handle mineral and oil and gas transactions."

Swimmer and the administration's frontline answer to all this is that a reorganization for efficiency throughout the BIA's trust operations, along with new trust officers at the BIA agencies, will go a long way toward resolving such problems.

First off, Swimmer said, his Office of the Special Trustee spent all of 2002 "documenting trust business functions ? mapping trust business processes" at the bureau. This had never been done before at the bureau, and it generated a 1,000 page document. Working from the document, the OST then began to ferret out repetitious and unnecessary steps, resulting in streamlined procedures, which in theory should produce efficiency gains for employees and improved service for clients.

"We think that this streamlining ? is a significant improvement ? We found that there's great receptivity there [at the BIA] to doing things better" in probate, leasing, minerals management, records retention scheduling - indeed across the board of the bureau's trust functions. "Whoever touches trust, we're trying to improve the way we do business."

Swimmer also countered the tribal leaders' view that the new fiduciary trust officer hirings will create another layer of bureaucracy without results in the field, where tribes need them. To the contrary, he said, the new fiduciary trust officers will be "worker bees." In place of the money management clerks who have been "scattered all over" in the bureau's past, the new hires will offer on-the-spot problem-solving at the agencies. Too often previously, the answer to problems has been "It had to go to Albuquerque, it had to go to central office, to Washington ? up the chain to get approval from higher levels."

With the new hires, such transactions may never have to leave the agency, Swimmer said.

Streamlining does require a degree of standardization, however, and for tribes that means centralization. This was the source of a cultural divide much in evidence at the March 10 hearing. It will form the core of next week's installment of this two-part article.

(Continued in Part Two)