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Swimmer to retain control of Indian appraisals
Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Dozens of Department of Interior employees won't lose their Indian preference status under a recent decision by Special Trustee Ross Swimmer.

In a short letter to Secretary Gale Norton and other top officials, Swimmer said the employees will not join the Bush administration's consolidation of appraisal services within the department. Swimmer cited tribal opposition to the proposal, which would have impacted Indian preference, tribal priority allocation funds and self-determination contracting and compacting.

"This agreement will accommodate several concerns raised at the meetings held on this issue and submitted in writing from tribal leaders," Swimmer wrote on March 31.

Swimmer's decision comes after several months of discussion with staff and Indian Country. Last fall, the Office of Special Trustee held three meetings to take input on joining the new appraisal office, located within Interior's National Business Center.

Tribal leaders objected to the substance of the consolidation as well as the way they were being consulted. The first meeting was held on short notice in Oklahoma, drawing just a handful of people. Subsequent meetings in Las Vegas and Rapid City drew more complaints.

"To hold a consultation session in Las Vegas for Alaska Natives is insulting," said Ed Thomas, president of the Tlingit-Haida Tribe of Alaska, in Senate testimony last month.

Swimmer and other OST officials said there would be several benefits with consolidation. They argued that the process would be more independent and result in more accurate appraisals of Indian trust lands.

But tribal leaders challenged the impact on Indian preference for nearly 70 appraiser positions. A legal opinion issued last October concluded the employees would lose their status if they moved to the new office.

"What I have a hard time understanding is that you people are supposed to be dealing with the Indian tribes, with the Indian people, and so why would you want to not have our people allowed to work within our own reservations?" asked Deb Louie, a council member for Confederated Colville Tribes of Washington, at the Las Vegas session. "I don't understand that."

Tribes also challenged the transfer of nearly $11 million in tribal priority allocation (TPA) funds, a pot of money used for services on the reservation level. Under the consolidation, the money would have been mixed with funding from other agencies that don't perform appraisals of Indian land.

Another objection centered on self-determination and self-governance agreements. Tribes questioned whether they would be able to contract and compact for appraisal services under the consolidation. With the exception of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Interior agencies are reluctant to enter into these arrangements.

Tribes also worried that the consolidation would do little to improve meager staff levels in regions where appraisals are most needed. The Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions, for example, have just one or two appraisers for millions of acres of land.

"To me, where I come from, if I have some tracts of land that need to be appraised, I certainly ain't going to depend on the Billings area office to provide that, because there's nobody there and there's no money there," said Alvin Windy Boy, chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Montana, at the Las Vegas meeting. "If I want a little piece of land, I'm going to Havre, Montana, or Big Sandy, Montana, or Ingrown Toenail, Montana, somewhere to get it done."

Swimmer responded to these concerns in announcing his decision not to join the consolidation but to enter into an agreement with the National Business Center. The Indian appraisal staff, he wrote, "will remain at the current regional locations and OST will retain the budget for the office. Additionally, as the office stays intact under this agreement, Indian Preference will still apply to these positions ... and tribes will still have the ability to contract and compact with OST for the appraisal function."

Tribes still have a long-standing complaint against the transfer of the appraisal staff from the BIA to OST. Former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb agreed to the move in early 2002 with no prior consultation. Swimmer was not involved in the decision.

The decision meant that BIA continues to fund the appraisal office even though the employees were technically under OST. In the fiscal year 2004 budget, the Bush administration is seeking to permanently remove $10.4 million from the TPA line item and give it to OST.

Get the Letter:
Ross Swimmer to Gale Norton (March 31, 2004)

Relevant Documents:
Indian Preference Memo (October 23, 2003) | Federal Register: Tribal Consultation on Participation by the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians in the Department of the Interior Consolidation of Agency Appraisal Functions (September 17, 2003)

Special Master Report:
SITE VISIT REPORT OF THE SPECIAL MASTER TO THE OFFICE OF APPRAISAL SERVICES IN GALLUP, NEW MEXICO AND THE BUREAU OF INDIAN AFFAIRS NAVAJO REALTY OFFICE IN WINDOW ROCK, ARIZONA (August 20, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov

Related Stories:
Fate of Indian preference in hands of Swimmer (02/04)
Editorial: Reform DOI, not the trust responsibility (11/26)
Tribes and Bush administration still apart on trust (11/20)
Editorial: Indian Country's Ugly Baby (11/05)
Indian employees to lose preference under Bush plan (11/04)
Self-governance tribes fear impact of reorganization (10/09)
Consolidation plan advances at Interior (9/16)
Court report finds undervaluation of Navajo lands (08/21)
Court master releases report on Navajo appraisals (8/20)
Swimmer weighs consolidation of appraisals (8/15)
Navajo trust fund manager targeted in internal probe (07/15)
Indian employees challenging DOI reorganization (06/03)
Navajo leaders criticize upheaval at trust fund office (05/09)
Confusion detailed at Interior (10/16)
DOI land swap program to be reviewed (10/11)
Norton land deal subject of dispute (10/01)
DOI approved $100M land 'giveaway' (8/19)

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