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Obama administration fudges numbers to reach land-into-trust goal

Filed Under: National | Politics | Trust
More on: 114th, barack obama, bia, blm, congress, doi, h.r.2733, land-into-trust, larry roberts, mark amodei, ncai, nevada, sally jewell, scia, usfs
     
   

President Barack Obama at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C, on September 26, 2016. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

Update: Land-into-trust data from the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been added to the post in the form of an image. A PDF version is also available.

The Obama administration is boasting it has placed more than 500,000 acres in trust for tribes but appears to be overstating its role in meeting that goal.

Since January 2009, top officials -- all the way from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the White House -- have been insistent on reversing what they said was a land-into-trust moratorium imposed during the Bush years. They repeatedly told tribes that they were taking steps to approve their applications and streamline the burdensome process.

"Together, we’ve permanently protected sacred lands for future generations, President Barack Obama said at his final White House Tribal Nations Conference just three weeks ago. "We’ve restored more than 428,000 acres of tribal homelands to their original owners."

But with less than three months left in Obama's term, the executive branch is taking credit for an achievement that originated with the legislative branch. Even though the BIA hasn't processed, approved, or otherwise handled a single land-into-trust application for six tribes in Nevada, the administration claims the enactment of the Nevada Native Nations Land Act puts the agency over its 500,000-acre goal.

"The administration broke the logjam on trust land applications in 2009 and has worked steadily, collaboratively and effectively to restore Native lands that will help strengthen tribal economies and make their nations whole again," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a press release on Wednesday.


Without the land-into-trust acquisitions in the Nevada Native Nations Land Act -- recorded as 6 applications totaling 71,177 acres in 2016 -- the Bureau of Indian Affairs has placed 470,885 acres in trust, a huge shift from the Bush era but still short of the goal of 500,000 acres in trust. Source: BIA

Although Jewell specifically mentioned "applications" in the press release, the enactment of H.R.2733 does not involve a single land-into-trust application. Instead, Congress directed the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to transfer properties under their jurisdiction to the six tribes in Nevada.

"Specifically, this bill will transfer more than 70,000 acres of Nevada public lands back into tribal control – empowering those tribal governments to control their land use destinies," Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nevada), the sponsor of the the bill, noted in a press release after the measure cleared its final hurdle in the 114th Congress.

Shortly before the White House Tribal Nations Conference on September 26, the BIA said it had placed 428,889 acres in trust. Around the same time, Larry Roberts, the principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that his agency has approved more than 2,000 applications since January 2009.

Yet he also lamented the slow-moving nature of the federal bureaucracy. "Even the simplest application," he said, "right now, under our current process, it takes about a year to get through."

But by taking credit for the 70,000-plus acres in the Nevada Native Nations Land Act, the Obama administration can easily claim to have surpassed the milestone. The announcement on Wednesday says 542,000 acres have been "restored" to tribes, a figure that was linked to "individual trust applications."

"Secretary Jewell announced early on a goal of restoring 500,000 acres to Indian Country by the end of the Obama administration and we view this as a meaningful start to correcting the enormous loss of tribal homelands Indian Country has endured," Roberts told tribes at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention in Phoenix, Arizona, on Monday.

Related Stories:
Tribes face uncertainty on land-into-trust as Obama era comes to a close (09/21)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs schedules hearing on four bills (09/12)
Opinion: Alaska enters a new era with tribes and land-into-trust (08/29)
Osage Nation celebrates $74M acquisition of ancestral territory (08/25)
Alaska tribes enter new era as state drops land-into-trust battle (08/16)
President Obama endorses land-into-trust foe in Senate contest in California (07/19)
Rep. Tom Cole suffers defeat as land-into-trust fix goes down in House (07/13)
Controversial land-into-trust fix removed from appropriations bill (07/12)
Battle erupts over partial land-into-trust fix in appropriations bill (07/11)
Democrats embrace tribal sovereignty in platform for convention (07/08)
Tribes in Alaska celebrate long-awaited victory in trust land case (07/04)
Bureau of Indian Affairs still hoping to reach land-into-trust goal (06/30)
Partial land-into-trust fix being watched by non-Indian interests (06/27)
Another land-into-trust fix reportedly being drafted in the Senate (06/24)
Poarch Band seeks a partial Carcieri fix for existing trust lands (06/20)

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