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Interior releases new probate and land regulations
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

The Bush administration's latest trust reform initiative was made public on Tuesday with some of the more controversial provisions taken off the agenda for now.

The Interior Department released 600-plus pages of new rules and regulations in late December 2005. The sheer volume of the material, plus the timing, prompted complaints from tribal leaders who said the initiative was unfocused and without real direction.

Earlier this year, National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garcia asked Interior to scale back the effort, citing substantive and procedural problems. He said the administration should make probate reform and land consolidation a priority and address more complex and controversial issues, such as land-into-trust, at a later date.

In a Federal Register notice published yesterday, Interior agreed with the approach. The regulations focus on probate, land title, land conveyances and other issues related to the management of the 55-million acre Indian estate.

Other proposals affecting land-into-trust, trust fund accounting and fees for trust services need more work, Interior said. "Based on input received during the February 1415, 2006, Albuquerque tribal consultation session, the department has determined that these regulations require additional work before publication as a proposed rule," the Federal Register notice stated.

"The department plans to promulgate these additional regulations at some point in the future," it continued.

Even without the additional rules, the initiative is complex. It seeks to implement the American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2005, a law that amended the Indian Land Consolidation Act, first passed in 1983.

The goal of probate reform and land consolidation is to prevent the further fractionation of the Indian estate. Due to the way the trust system was originally created, it can be common for one parcel of land to be owned by dozens or even hundreds of individual Indians.

Probate of these estates has been handled under state laws, a situation that can lead to confusion and disparities in the handling of Indian lands. With the new law, tribes can develop probate codes to address their own needs. The codes must be approved by the Interior Secretary, according to the rules published yesterday.

Other regulatory changes in Interior's handling of probates and land consolidation will help improve services to individual Indians, according to the notice. Overall, Interior is proposing to change or create seven major section of the Code of Federal Regulations.

The administration had hoped to publish the proposal by July in hopes of finalizing them by September or October. But a slip in the schedule means they might be finished until November or December.

Comments on the rules released yesterday are being accepted until October 10.

Federal Register Notice:
Indian Trust Management Reform; Proposed Rule | PDF Version

Relevant Documents:
Proposed Regulation Changes (Posted by the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association)

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
Intertribal Trust Fund Monitoring Association - http://www.itmatrustfunds.org
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm

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