Artman leaves unfinished business at BIA

It's hard to accomplish much in a year at the Bureau of Indian Affairs so when assistant secretary Carl Artman leaves later this month, the agency will have a lot of big issues on its plate.

During his short tenure, Artman certainly recorded several achievements. One notable improvement was the significant reduction in the probate backlog -- nearly half of the cases were resolved in the past two years and most should be completed by the end of this year.

But Artman saw fewer successes in other areas that he cited as priorities when he took over the BIA in March 2007. The biggest was the land-into-trust backlog, which he initially put at over 1,300 applications.

Amid Congressional scrutiny, Artman reduced the figure drastically, to less than 300. But this was based on the number of applications that he said were ready for a decision, meaning the BIA will still have over 1,000 applications in the queue.

Artman did tackle another high-profile backlog -- for off-reservation casinos. In January, the Bush administration rejected 11 of these land-into-trust applications and put 12 more on the back burner, leaving fewer than 10 for the BIA to resolve.

But controversy over the way he addressed the matter puts these decisions in doubt. Rather than consult tribes or propose new regulations, Artman issued an internal "guidance" memorandum that essentially kills all off-reservation casino proposals.

Even when Artman wanted to engage in tribal consultation, he didn't always get off the ground. During an appearance on the radio show Native America Calling in April 2007, he said he planned to overhaul the regulations for the "151" land-into-trust process.

A few months later, he changed his tune and was telling tribal leaders there wasn't enough time left in the administration to go that route. His decision to issue the internal memo shortly afterwards angered many in Indian Country, as well as some members of Congress.

Artman was able to consult tribes about regulations for some types of d-into-trust applications. As of this year, the BIA has gone 20 years without a concrete process for approving land acquisitions under Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

IGRA, in general, bars casinos on land acquired after 1988. But Section 20 contains exceptions for Oklahoma tribes, newly recognized tribes, restored tribes and tribes with land claims. It also defines the process for tribes that don't meet any of these exceptions.

Artman hoped to publish the regulations in the Federal Register last summer. But he kept on pushing the date back, citing delays at the Interior Department, then at the White House Office of Management and Budget. No action has been taken on the rules for more than a year.

Artman and the administration won praise for rapidly responding to the methamphetamine crisis in Indian Country. The BIA dedicated more money and more law enforcement personnel to help tribes address the growing problem.

But he didn't do much on other pressing issues like the Cobell trust fund lawsuit. Despite serving as an associate solicitor at Interior prior to running the BIA and being a named defendant, he once said he didn't have much involvement in the case and he never took on a high-profile role in the litigation, unlike both of his predecessors.

With May 23 as Artman's last day on the job, the future of his modernization initiative is up in the air. Though he has been meeting regularly with tribes to discuss the future of the agency, they have questioned whether his successor will want to continue the effort.

Relevant Documents:
Resignation Letter (April 28, 2008)

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