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Trump administration ready to let Cobell program run out of funds





The Trump administration is prepared to let the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations die after a top official said it wasn't achieving results.

In the eyes of Indian Country, the $1.9 billion program has been a resounding success. It has allowed tribes to recover lands that were taken away during the allotment era while compensating individual Indians for their small, fractional ownerships.

But during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Jim Cason, the "acting" deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior, showed clear disdain for the way the effort was carried out by the Obama administration. Tribal leaders like the program because it means "free money" for their communities, he asserted.

"I don't think there's any tribal leader that would say, 'Gee -- I don't want free money,'" Cason told the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, individual Indians, according to Cason, aren't motivated by a desire to reduce fractionation, which was the program was designed to address. Instead, they are primarily concerned about how much they will get paid for their interests, he said.

Despite bringing more than $1.1 billion to Indian Country since December 2015, "the program unfortunately has made relatively little progress," Cason testified. "In my mind, we are almost back to where we started 8 years ago, just merely treading water," he said.

The characterization of Indian Country as greedy raised eyebrows during the hearing. Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, was quick to rebuke Cason for his remarks.

"Well it's not necessarily free money," Torres interjected. "Remember they were the original owners of this land that was taken from them, pillaged from them."

Torres also challenged Cason to explain where the new administration was taking the program. After claiming that he didn't have a "proposal" to do anything, he admitted that he is prepared to shift how the $600 million left in buy-back funds will be spent.

Cason, who previously worked at Interior during the Bush administration, was especially bothered by the thought of spending funds on valuable interests in Indian Country. More than once, he tried to steer lawmakers to an acquisition that resulted in a seemingly large payday for individual Indians.

"I would never authorize spending $650,000 per acre for these fractionated interests -- it's just way too expensive," Cason said.

A listening session on the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in March 2016. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Although Cason didn't name names, his written testimony left little doubt about the target of his contempt. He made it clear that he was referring to a situation in southern California where the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians acquired about 2.52 acres at a cost of $1.63 million. The document, though, does not mention that land taken from that particular tribe has become extremely valuable.

"So I would redirect our staff to buy interests in a much narrower arena where we get lots of interests for a little bit of money, as opposed to spending a lot of money for relatively few interests," Cason said.

For instance, Cason wants the program to focus on reservations where interests can be acquired for $400 to $500 per acre. Currently, he said staff are looking at places where land costs $50,000 to $100,000 an acre.

"I think if we make some wise choices about where we go, we can leverage the money a lot better," Cason said, adding that it will "be basically up to me" to make the changes unless Congress dictates otherwise.

Leaders of the Blackfeet Nation sign a cooperative agreement in May 2016 as part of the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Unless Congress steps in, the money will definitely run out in less than three years. But don't count on President Donald Trump to seek any land consolidation funds in future budgets, Cason said, given his desire to cut funds at Interior and at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The $1.9 billion buy-back program was a critical component of the settlement to the Cobell trust fund lawsuit. Without it, the federal government would not have agreed to end the case, officials from the Obama administration have repeatedly said. During the Bush years, Cason also said reducing fractionation was a focus of settlement talks that were ultimately scuttled by the White House at the time.


In testimony about the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, Jim Cason, an "acting" official at the Department of the Interior, drew attention to to the acquisition of about 2.52 acres in southern California for $1.6 million, suggesting it wasn't a wise of funds. Source: U.S. DOI

As of May 19, the program has put $1.18 billion in the hands of individual Indians. The equivalent of more than 2.1 million acres has been returned to tribes as a result.

Despite questioning the overall handling of the program, Cason was forced to admit that it has prevented the number of fractionated interests from increasing since December 2015. He also failed to acknowledge that the BIA, during his prior tenure at Interior, told Congress it would cost up to $3 billion to address fractionation. The department never requested anywhere near that amount -- at most, the BIA received about $21 million a year for land consolidation.

House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on the Status and Future of the Cobell Land Consolidation Program (May 23, 2017)

Department of the Interior Report:
2016 Status Report: Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations (November 2016)

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