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Land-into-trust requests fall into BIA's 'black hole'
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Filed Under: Politics

What happens when a tribe submits a land-into-trust application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs?

Tribal leaders hope it will be processed in a timely manner. But in the face of lengthy waits, many are wondering what is going on at the agency that is charged with serving their needs.

"The message we're getting is just there is no movement," said Brenda Litinger, a council member for the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, at the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) meeting last week.

Litinger said her tribe wants to have land placed in trust for non-gaming purposes. That shouldn't be controversial but there's been no action for a couple of years, she told Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department.

"We are being hindered by this delay, by this black hole," Litinger said last Wednesday.

Christine Norris, the chief of the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana, shared a similar story. As a recently recognized tribe, the Choctaws are waiting for Interior to make a "reservation proclamation" for their initial land base.

But Norris said she has no idea what is happening with the application now that it has been sent to the BIA's central office in Washington, D.C. "I am not getting any response, any telephone calls returned," she told Cason.

"It seems as if it's fallen into a black hole," Norris added.

A couple of days later, the tribes' fears were compounded by the testimony of the Government Accountability Office. At the first hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee on Friday, lawmakers were told that the land-into-trust process is only getting worse.

"Over 1,000 land in trust applications from tribes and individual Indians are currently pending," said Robin Nazarro, the director of natural resources and Environment at the GAO. That's up from the "hundreds" a BIA official told a Senate committee back in May 2005.

According to the GAO, the median processing time for a land-into-trust application is 1.2 years. But one tribe waited 13 years and another waited 19 years to receive an answer.

Since the Indian Reorganization Act, the law that created the land-into-trust process, does not impose timelines on the BIA, the agency can take as long as it wants to complete the process. At the USET meeting, Cason confirmed that some tribes will have to wait longer than others due to limited staff and controversies associated with Indian gaming.

Cason said that non-gaming applications are being handled after gaming and gaming-related applications. He also cited problems with the BIA's land title system and inaccurate or missing data. One regional office in Oklahoma wasn't even entering any of its data into the system, according to a GAO report.

"I had to set some priorities ... and in setting the priorities, new land-into-trust ended up being a lower priority," Cason told attendees of USET.

The BIA is currently revamping its land-into-trust processes but again, gaming acquisitions have been given a higher priority. The agency's "Section 20" regulations -- named for the section of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act -- are due to be finalized this spring.

The "151" regulations -- named for a section of the Code of Federal Regulations that affect non-gaming acquisitions -- are still on the back burner. In 2001, the Bush administration rescinded a set of rules that, for the first time, would have imposed deadlines on the BIA.

Government Accountability Office Testimony:
Department of the Interior: Major Management Challenges (February 16, 2007)

Government Accountability Office Report:
BIA's Efforts to Impose Time Frames and Collect Better Data Should Improve the Processing of Land in Trust Applications | Highlights

Interior Department Inspector General Evaluation Report:
Process Used to Assess Applications to Take Land Into Trust for Gaming Purposes (September 2005)

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