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GAO finds lengthy delays on land-into-trust

A new report from the Government Accountability Office confirms that some tribes are being treated differently when it comes to the land-into-trust process.

By and large, most tribes and individual Indians are subject to delays. According to the report, the median processing time was 1.2 years for non-gaming applications that were approved in 2005.

Of the 87 non-gaming applications approved last year, nearly, or 43, took between seven months and 1.5 years to process. But an equally larger number, 32, took two years or more before they were finalized.

One tribe -- the Kickapoo in Kansas -- waited 13 years on one application and 14 years on another. Yet that wasn't the longest delay on record -- a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseno Mission Indians in California waited a whopping 19 years before the Bureau of Indian Affairs took final action.

"Based on these time frames, it appears that many land in trust applications have not been processed in a timely manner," the GAO wrote in the July 28 report.

Not everyone has to wait as long, however. In 2005, the Eastern Oklahoma regional director processed 14 applications in less than a year -- and 13 of those were for the Chickasaw Nation.

The Eastern Oklahoma region serves 19 tribes but only one non-Chickasaw application, for a member of the Seminole Nation, was fully processed in 2005. Yet small tribes in the region have complained that they have not seen action on their applications.

Interestingly, none of the Chickasaw Nation's 13 applications were entered into the BIA's land-into-trust database. Employees claimed they didn't have access to the Fee to Trust Electronic Checklist.

On the other side of Oklahoma, the situation changes dramatically. In the Southern Plains region, which includes 18 tribes in western Oklahoma and 6 tribes in Kansas and Texas, the median processing time for applications was 3.5 years.

Yet in 2005, no western Oklahoma tribe received an answer on their land-into-trust applications. As of this month, the Delaware Nation and the Kaw Nation each have been waiting for nearly two years for their applications to be processed.

Still, the Southern Plains region wasn't the most egregious case, according to the GAO report. In the Pacific Region, which serves 45 tribes in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the median processing time was 6.1 years, the longest on record.

The regions aren't the only source of delays, either. The BIA Central Office in Washington, D.C., has been holding onto some non-gaming applications for an average of 4.6 years, the GAO said.

The Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation in Kansas has been waiting the longest for an answer. As of September 30, 2005, the tribe had four applications at central office pending for a cumulative 4,348 days, or nearly 12 years.

In total, the central office was holding onto 28 off-reservation applications as of September 30, 2005. All are for non-gaming purposes.

The reason for the delays at the regional offices varied. Some BIA officials claimed they could do their work faster if they had Internet access, according to the report.

The agency has been disconnected from the public Internet since December 5, 2001, after a court investigator found security vulnerabilities.

At the central office, the GAO had another explanation. "Turnover in the position of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs may have contributed to the length of time involved in processing off-reservation applications," the report states.

Since December 2002, the report continues, "the position of Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs has been held by three different people: an acting Assistant Secretary; a permanent Assistant Secretary; and, since February 2005, an Associate Deputy Secretary at Interior has served as the Acting Assistant Secretary."

The report was mandated by the fiscal year 2006 Interior appropriations bill. It was delivered to the House and Senate leaders who control Interior's funding.

Government Accountability Office Report:
BIA's Efforts to Impose Time Frames and Collect Better Data Should Improve the Processing of Land in Trust Applications | Highlights

Interior Department Inspector General Evaluation Report:
Process Used to Assess Applications to Take Land Into Trust for Gaming Purposes (September 2005)