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Fate of Indian preference in hands of Swimmer
Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The Department of Interior official overseeing trust reform said this week he is still mulling a decision that would result in the loss of Indian preference for dozens of employees.

In hopes of ensuring independence and integrity, the department has consolidated appraisal functions previously performed by various agencies. The new organization is located in the National Business Center.

The Office of Special Trustee (OST) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) aren't part of the new unit. But for the past several months, Special Trustee Ross Swimmer has been debating whether to join the effort.

Last last year, OST held three meetings and took comments from tribal leaders about the idea. Swimmer has been evaluating the responses received and has met with top officials to discuss how to proceed.

"Due to the complexity of the issue and, frankly, my concerns of what I heard over what I heard in Indian Country, maybe by the end of March, I would hope to have a pretty good recommendation of where to go with it," he said in an interview on Monday.

Swimmer said the comments submitted by tribes fell in four major areas: Indian preference, organization, priority and budget.

According to the department's lawyers, Indian preference will no longer apply if the employees who perform appraisals for trust lands are moved. About 67 posts would be affected but even if they lose their preference status, Swimmer said he will continue to look to hire qualified American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Swimmer also said tribes are concerned about the regional appraisal offices that currently exist throughout Indian Country. Tribes want to know if the organization will expand or if the offices will be forced to move. Currently, the offices are being overseen by an acting manager who is stationed in Phoenix, Arizona.

Another issue is whether trust lands will be given a higher priority. Tribes are worried about competing with other Interior agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for appraisal services.

Finally, Swimmer said tribes want to know whether the budget for appraisals will increase, and how it will be spent. Currently, nearly $11 million is allocated for the job.

Up until early 2002, the Office of Appraisal Services was under the authority of the BIA. But without consulting tribes, former BIA head Neal McCaleb handed the program over to OST. The transfer was not initiated by Swimmer, who was not the special trustee at the time.

Since then, the BIA has continued to pay for the appraisals of trust lands. But in the fiscal year 2005 budget that was released on Monday, the Bush administration is proposing to take the funding from the BIA and give it to OST.

The change appears cosmetic but it has a big impact on tribes because the appraisal budget falls under the tribal priority allocation (TPA) account. Tribes will be losing $10.4 million if the transfer is approved.

As he moves forward, Swimmer said he is considering different alternatives. One option is to join the department unit. Another is to establish some sort of "management contract" between the unit and OST. The final option is to leave things as they stand.

"In the meantime, it's still being operated through OST and it will continue to be," he said.

Fiscal Year 2005 Budget:
Fiscal Year 2005 Budget in Brief | Unified Trust Budget | Serving Tribal Communities | BIA Highlights | Departmental Offices [for Office of Special Trustee]

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:

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Office of Special Trustee -

Related Stories:
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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