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Money for Indian land buys will come up short

Matthew Brown
Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — An ambitious effort to restore tribal control over huge areas of privately owned land on American Indian reservations is projected to run out of money with millions of acres still not purchased, according to a U.S. government report obtained by The Associated Press.

The Obama administration established the “land buyback program” under a 2009 legal settlement that found that the government had squandered billions of dollars it had held in trust for tribes. The money came from royalties on oil and gas leases, grazing and other uses of Indian lands.

As part of that deal, federal officials agreed to spend $1.6 billion to purchase so-called fractionated parcels of land. These properties have more than one owner, making them hard to sell or develop.

Yet more than 4 million acres that are eligible for purchase will remain unbought when the settlement money runs out in 2022, according to an Interior Department report.

The report was scheduled for public release on Tuesday. It was obtained in advance by The Associated Press.

To date, the buyback program has paid out almost $900 million to purchase the equivalent of 1.7 million acres on more than two dozen reservations.

The eligible parcels that are expected to remain after the settlement money runs out are collectively worth several billion dollars, said Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor.

“We’re making progress but there will still be a sizeable amount of acreage out there at the end of 2022,” Connor said. “We thought it appropriate to start thinking through that long-term issue right now.”

Interior officials said in the report they are considering asking Congress to make the program permanent so the land purchases can continue. A final decision will be made following consultations with lawmakers and tribal leaders, Interior officials said.

A spokesman for Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said the Obama administration emphasized when the case was settled that it needed only a 10-year window to accomplish its goals.

“It is important to address the issue of highly fractioned land in a manner that is fair to both the affected land owners and to tribes, while also demanding the requisite accountability from the administration,” Danylak said.

Parcels of land bought through the program are transferred to tribal governments to be put to beneficial use — such as for home sites or business locations — or preserved as cultural or ceremonial sites

An 1887 law known as the Dawes Act split tribal lands into individual allotments that were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation.

The result has been that parcels of land on some reservations are owned by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individual Indians. That makes it all but impossible to sell or develop the land because of difficulties reaching consensus among so many owners.

The legal settlement resulted from a class-action lawsuit brought by Elouise Cobell of Montana’s Blackfeet tribe. Cobell, who died in 2011, successfully argued that Interior officials for decades mismanaged trust money being held on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Indian landowners.

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