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Tribes unhappy over further delay on land into trust

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WASHINGTON - Tribal leaders say they are discouraged by the Bush administration's further delay in adopting new guidelines to speed up consideration of requests from tribes to acquire certain pieces of land and put them into a tax-exempt federal trust.

The regulations, approved in the final days of the Clinton administration and endorsed by the National Congress of American Indians, establish standards and timelines for putting American Indian land into a trust, a process that sometimes has taken several years.

Particularly important is the requirement that the BIA decide on land trust applications within 120 days, said Tex Hall, chairman of Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota.

Now Secretary Gale Norton has postponed a decision on adopting the new rules. She decided to take comment for another 60 days, then spend an additional 60 days reviewing the proposed rule, said BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling.

"We are not happy with that," Hall said. "We worked long and hard on the NCAI committee to get the regulations written. We asked Secretary Norton to meet with us.

"The states weighed in by saying tribes got everything they wanted. We didn't. We got time frames and standards. That's a mixed bag. We agreed before we passed the NCAI resolution that we should have former treaty lands to be treated as tribal lands.

Hall added that tribes lost 90 million acres in the Allotment Act. "People forget that ... state and county people forget how many acres we lost. I'd like the nations to get that money.

"We're not a special interest group, not just another appropriation, we are talking about 90 million acres. The intent of the Allotment Act was to stop lands from going out of trust. We accepted it, we lost out on contiguous and treaty lands, this was finalized."

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Hall said the tribes told the former head of the BIA, Kevin Gover, they didn't like the agreement and wanted to form a task force. Gover agreed to the task force, "but we didn't get what we wanted," Hall said, but the effort went forward.

"I grabbed the microphone at a hearing and told Secretary Norton that we didn't want her to put a moratorium on land into trust. We wanted her to accept the vote of NCAI. She said she would review it, would take into consideration.

"I told her we wanted a meeting with her. I thought she was agreeable to meeting then I heard the states were calling her and the states wanted to review the regulation. Then she said she would open the regulation up for review and comment. We were not happy with that, we were hoping to get meeting so she hears our side of the story."

Hall said the "279 member tribes of NCAI voted to accept regulation, that's over half of tribal nations."

Federal trust status removes land owned by tribes from tax rolls and exempts it from zoning controls and other local government regulations. Reservation land that is not in trust can be taxed by local governments.

Tribes have reacquired about a tenth of the land lost to the allotment policy. Those made wealthy by gambling interests have stepped up buying land on and off their reservations in recent years, leading to conflicts with local communities. Sometimes, those conflicts arise when tribes seek to place casinos on the land; in other situations, local communities resist tax-exempt commercial development they say saps their tax base.

The new land trust rules were first proposed nearly two years ago. The final version was announced on Jan. 16, days before President Clinton left office.

The BIA traditionally treated land contiguous to reservations as if it were on the reservations and gave preference to such applications.