Land program strengthens tribal sovereignty and reduces land fractionation
BROWNING, MONT. –(ENEWSPF)–May 3, 2016. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today traveled to the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana with U.S. Senator Jon Tester for a signing ceremony commemorating a new agreement with the Blackfeet Nation to implement the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations (Buy-Back Program).
The Buy-Back Program serves as the land consolidation component of the Cobell settlement, which provided $1.9 billion to purchase fractional interests in trust or restricted land from willing sellers at fair market value within 10 years. Consolidated interests are immediately restored to tribal trust ownership for uses benefiting the reservation community and tribal members.
“This nation-to-nation agreement honors the work of the late Elouise Cobell and will restore tribal homelands for the benefit of current and future Blackfeet tribal members,” Secretary Jewell said. “Together, we are fulfilling President Obama’s commitment to help strengthen Native American communities through self-determination, repairing broken promises and investing in the future of tribal nations.”
Since it began making offers in December 2013, the Program has paid more than $740 million to individual landowners and restored the equivalent of nearly 1.5 million acres of land to tribal governments.
The Department has now entered into agreements with 31 tribal nations to cooperatively implement the Buy-Back Program. Each agreement is unique in time, scope and responsibilities, based on the expressed interests of the tribe. The agreements outline coordinated strategies to facilitate education about the Buy-Back Program to landowners.
“It is a great honor for the Blackfeet Tribe to host Secretary Jewell and our good friend Senator Jon Tester. The kickoff of Blackfeet’s own Land Buy Back Program is more unique because the entire program came about through the hard work of our own Elouise Cobell,” Blackfeet Chairman Harry Barnes said. “The Cobell settlement touched every American Indian’s life. It is rare that Indian Country has the opportunity to host a policy maker of Secretary Jewell’s stature and position. It is imperative that those who would consider Indian Policy visit Indian Country and witness first hand the struggles our people live with day in and day out. Too often that policy is determined on the Potomac with no consideration of the Two Medicine.”
Fractionation is a serious problem in Indian Country. When tracts of land have hundreds or thousands of co-owners, it is difficult to obtain the required approvals for leases or other uses of such lands. As a result, many highly-fractionated tracts are unoccupied and unavailable for any useful purpose. There are approximately 245,000 owners of nearly three million fractional interests across Indian Country who are eligible to participate in the Buy-Back Program.
In remarks at today’s ceremony, Secretary Jewell and Senator Tester discussed a need for Interior to work with Congress on a longer-term solution to deal with fractionation following the termination of the Land Buy-Back Program, set to expire in 2022.
Secretary Jewell directed the oversight board that manages the Buy-Back Program, led by Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department Michael L. Connor, to undergo an analysis within the next 60 days with the many offices involved in implementation. The board will send options to the Secretary for review to extend the life of the Program so that future participants can benefit and perhaps allow the Program to return to locations where implementation has already occurred.
The Department has identified 42 locations where land consolidation activities such as planning, outreach, mapping, mineral evaluations, appraisals or acquisitions are expected to take place through the middle of 2017. These communities represent 83 percent of all outstanding fractional interests across Indian Country. An expanded schedule of additional locations will be announced in the coming weeks.
Landowners with fractional interests can contact the Trust Beneficiary Call Center at (888) 678-6836 with questions. Individuals can also visit their local Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) or Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office, or find more information at: www.doi.gov/buybackprogram/landowners.