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DOI to ask tribes about Indian land appraisals
Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Already in the midst of one reorganization, the Bush administration is moving forward with plans to strip the Office of Special Trustee (OST) of its appraisal program.

According to a Federal Register notice to be published this week, OST will consult with tribes on how to move forward. Only three consultation meetings -- including one to be held next week -- are scheduled, in addition to a public comment period that will end November 7.

The move is part of a department-wide effort to create a single unit to handle appraisals of all federal lands. Secretary Gale Norton announced the proposal in June, responding to decades of criticism about the lack of independence among appraisers. She was also spurred by high-profile controversies about the undervaluation of federal lands.

At the time, the Indian land appraisal program wasn't up for consolidation. But according to the notice, a task force of department officials has decided "that it would be in the best interest" of OST to join forces with other Interior agencies.

Special trustee Ross Swimmer, a Bush appointee, is heading up the campaign. In an interview last month, he said the proposal has several benefits, including more accurate appraisals of lands owned by tribes and individual Indians.

The legal status of trust lands raises unique issues that will be considered at the consultation meetings. One is how consolidation would impact tribes who compact or contract the appraisal function.

There's also the question of Indian preference, the policy of recruiting and hiring qualified Alaska Natives and American Indians. Currently, only the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and parts of the OST are subject to the policy.

"It's an issue that is on the table," Swimmer said in the interview last month. "I don't know if it would or not. If it became part of the reorganization, I'm not sure that [Indian preference] is applicable."

Some Indian program positions are already losing their preference status due to the ongoing reorganization of BIA and expansion of OST. A memo from a Department of Interior solicitor reversed long-standing policy about the applicability of the policy. Swimmer's staff has requested another legal opinion on the topic.

In 2002, the Bush administration stripped BIA of its authority over the appraisal program and gave it to OST. Officials, at the time, expressed concerns about the lack of independence of BIA appraisers.

But tribal leaders were upset at the change, which came at the height of their opposition to BITAM. They also weren't consulted, and have a long-standing request to reverse the decision.

The shakeup, like the consolidation now under review, was pitched as means to improve services. But some in Indian Country say they haven't noticed any benefits.

"I haven't seen the results of that yet," said Irvin Chavez, president of the Shi Shi Keyah Association, a group of Navajo landowners in northern New Mexico.

The appraisal program recently came under fire in a report from a court investigator in the Indian trust fund lawsuit. According to special master Alan Balaran, BIA appraisers allowed Navajo-owned lands to be used by oil and gas companies for less than market value.

"This has been going on for many many years," said Chavez.

The OST consolidation meetings will take place September 24 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and October 28 at the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. They will coincide with BIA reorganization meetings being held in Tulsa from September 24-25 and in Las Vegas from October 27-30.

Relevant Documents:
DOI Appraisal Letter; Federal Register Notice (September 2003)

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

Related Stories:
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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