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Politics
Budget bill orders study of land-into-trust process


The $26.2 billion Interior appropriations bill approved by the House last week orders a Congressional review of the taking of land into trust, another sign of the heightened scrutiny of the controversial process.

Language in the report accompanying the bill directs the General Accountability Office (GAO) to perform a study of the "procedures and practices" used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to acquire trust lands. "The Bureau's regulations prescribe detailed procedures for placing land into trust, including consideration of the impact on local tax revenues and jurisdictional conflicts that may arise," the report states.

In addition to the BIA's regulations, the GAO is being ordered to study the "role played by tribes that contract with BIA to manage real estate service programs." Some tribes manage the programs under self-determination contracts and self-governance compacts.

Although the budget has yet to be taken up by the Senate, lawmakers appear eager to hear the results of the investigation, ordering the GAO to begin the study "as soon as the Interior Appropriations bill passes the House floor." The bill was approved last Thursday by a vote of 329-89.

If it goes forward, the study adds to the growing concern among key members of Congress about the land-into-trust process. Not since the mid-1990s, when lawmakers on the House side launched what have been called anti-Indian proposals, such as threatening to take trust lands away from tribes if, they didn't collect state taxes, has the issue generated so much attention.

Since the start of the 109th Congress in January, the House and the Senate have been holding hearings on the issue. Over and over, lawmakers have acknowledged that the $18.5 billion and growing Indian gaming industry is influencing the debate.

"I'm worried about Indian gaming," said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, on Wednesday on an unrelated topic. "I'm worried about some of the things that are happening with Indian gaming," he added. "We're having a series of hearings on this."

But not everyone believes that linking the two issues together is fair. At a hearing last week, Democrats on the committee said the land-into-trust debate should not be confused with gaming.

"In most circumstances, gaming has almost nothing to do with land-into-trust," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the committee's vice chairman. A BIA official confirmed that the majority of trust land requests are for non-gaming purposes.

Dorgan and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) also pointed out that, in some parts of Indian Country, more land is falling out of trust than is going into trust. "Unfortunately, the stripping of Indian lands has not stopped," Inouye said.

Tribal leaders are quick to note that acquiring trust lands is a long, costly and often contentious process. State and local governments, as well as groups opposed to gaming, can tie up decisions in the courts for several years.

"My mother tried to put grazing land into trust," Kurt Luger, the executive director of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association, recalled at a state governors' conference in March. "It took her 17 years."

From 1887, when Congress authorized the allotment of the tribal land base, to 1934, when allotment was stopped, tribes lost 90 million acres of land. Since then, they have only recovered about 7 million acres.

The passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934 gave the Interior Department the authority to acquire land in trust for tribes and individual Indians. Over the years, that power has been under attack in the courts, with cases in the 1st Circuit and the 8th Circuit pending.

The current land-into-trust regulations allow the BIA to take as much time as it wants to make a decision. Tribes supported changes that would impose deadlines but the Bush administration rescinded the proposal after taking office in 2001 and has no plans to restart the consultation process.

The full language of the report reads:
The Bureau's regulations prescribe detailed procedures for placing land into trust, including consideration of the impact on local tax revenues and jurisdictional conflicts that may arise. The Committee directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a study of Bureau procedures and practices in implementing these regulations, including the role played by Tribes that contract with BIA to manage real estate service programs. The GAO should report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations no later than May 1, 2006. The Committee is aware that GAO studies can take time, and directs the GAO to undertake this study as soon as the Interior Appropriations bill passes the House floor.

2006 Interior Appropriations Bill:
H.R.2361 | House Report 109-080

Relevant Links:
NIGC Indian Land Determinations - http://www.nigc.gov/nigc/nigcControl?option=LAND_DETERMINATIONS
Land into Trust, National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/issues/
governance/land_into_trust.asp