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Alaska tribes enter new era with first land-into-trust application

Filed Under: Law | National | Politics | Trust
More on: aaron schutt, afn, alaska, alaska native, ancs, bia, ccthita, dc circuit, jahna lindemuth, land-into-trust, larry roberts, meetings, richard peterson, tcc
     
   

Thousands of Native leaders, elders and youth are meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, all week. Photo by Eric Engman / First Alaskans Institute

The very first land-into-trust application has been filed in Alaska and the Bureau of Indian Affairs stands ready to help tribes restore their homelands, a top official said on Thursday.

The new era is starting out small. The Craig Tribal Association filed an application for a one-acre parcel that includes its headquarters and a head start.

But with more tribes poised to join the movement, the BIA's regional office wants to help, principal deputy assistant secretary Larry Roberts said at the largest gathering of Alaska Natives in the state.

"We have 11 employees that stand ready to work on fee-to-trust in Alaska," Roberts said in Fairbanks on the opening day of the 50th annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

The application comes just three months after a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., upheld the BIA's decision to include Alaska in its land-into-trust regulations. For decades, the agency had excluded the 220-plus tribes in the state under an interpretation that was found to be erroneous during a prior stage in the case.

The following month, the state of Alaska announced that it would not appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, ushering in a dramatic change in tribal relations.

"We are now in an era of collaboration and communication," Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said at AFN. The decision to drop the case was one of her first on the job, she noted.

Even though tribes in the lower 48 have been following the land-into-trust process since 1934, it's uncharted territory for those in Alaska. The rural character of the state and the presence of Native-owned corporations has posed some interesting questions.

Regional corporations, for example, own the subsurface rights to their lands while village corporations own the surface rights. That sort of situation could complicate matters in the future, argued Aaron Schutt, the president and CEO of Doyon Ltd, one of the 13 regional corporations.

"There's no special Alaska circumstance that requires the BIA to consult, or get the permission of, or otherwise even involve the regional corporation in the decision," Schutt said. "That troubles those of us who might own that subsurface."

At the same time, Schutt said Doyon supports the goal of restoring tribal homelands. The corporation and the Tanana Chief Conference are collaborating on a potential application.

"There are lots of opportunities to work together," Schutt said during a panel discussion.

With just one application in the queue for now, the state is actively encouraging the public to participate. Although Lindemuth plans to submit comments to the BIA by November 9, it's anyone's guess as to how long the review process might take.

"It is a 16-step process," Roberts noted. Approval could take as little as year or "many years depending on the application," he added.

Like the Craig Tribal Association, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes is starting out small when it comes to land-into-trust. President Richard Peterson said a possible application is "just our parking lot."

But the fact that the BIA will process any application in Alaska, however large or small, speaks volumes.

"It's a very early stage right now. It's a very exciting time," Peterson said. "There's a lot of potential."

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Akiachak Native Community v. Department of the Interior (July 1, 2016)

Federal Register Notices:
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (December 23, 2014)
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (July 1, 2014)
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (May 1, 2014)

Relevant Documents:
Dear Tribal Leader Letter from Kevin Washburn (April 30, 2014)

District Court Decisions:
Akiachak Native Community v. Jewell (September 30, 2013)
Akiachak Native Community v. Salazar (March 31, 2013)

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