Norton delays land-into-trust regulations
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APRIL 16, 2001

In a move that disappointed tribal leaders but which was praised by non-Indians, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Friday delayed regulations aimed at reversing more than one hundred years of assimilationist land policies.

In a Federal Register announcement being published today, Norton is reopening the comment period on the land-into-trust regulations finalized after nearly two years of work by the Clinton administration. An additional 60 days will be taken to review any comments received, according to the announcement.

The rules had already been delayed two months as soon as President Bush was inaugurated in January.

Norton's decision is the latest in a series of actions the new administration and Republican lawmakers have taken to change, overturn, or otherwise pass judgment on policies finalized before the GOP took control of the White House. A number of regulations -- from arsenic levels in drinking water to workplace safety -- have already been axed as more face the chopping block.

Interior officials, however, deny ulterior motives are behind Norton's temporary suspension of the regulations, whose central focus of restoring the land base of Indian Country has pitted tribes against state and local governments.

"We have no position on this action one way or the other," said spokesperson Mark Pfeifle. "We've heard concerns from all sides of the issue and before rubber-stamping something, we want to make sure we make the best decision possible."

Pfeifle's explanation of the Interior's need for additional input brought little comfort to Tex Hall, Chairman of the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa Nation of North Dakota. Along with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Hall participated actively in the development of the regulations and lobbied Norton to keep them intact.

"My worst fears have come true," said Hall. "I'm extremely disappointed that Secretary Norton has wanted to reopen the comment period without consultation."

The leader of one of three Connecticut towns challenging a land-into-trust decision favoring the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation saw the issue differently. When told of Norton's decision, Ledyard Mayor Wesley Johnson said simply: "It's good news."

Johnson said he and the leaders of North Stonington and Preston wrote Norton and asked her to reconsider the regulations. The towns had previously submitted a number of comments on them but Johnson on Friday said he didn't know if they would submit additional ones.

First proposed in April 1999, the rules seek to clarify how the Secretary of Interior takes land into trust for tribes. Tribes have long complained about the length of the process, which can take up to three years, and welcomed a provision requiring the Bureau of Indian Affairs to make a decision within 120 days of receipt of a land-into-trust application.

But Hall pointed out that the Interior rejected a number of concerns raised by tribes. Contrary to the views of state and local governments, Hall said, the regulations are a "mixed bag" for tribes.

"We put in time frames and standards but we lost on contiguous lands," said Hall. "Alaska didn't get anything. Landless Indians didn't get anything."

Saying it was "critical" that Norton meet with tribal leaders, Hall said he would press for a meeting with the Secretary to discuss these and other concerns. Pfeifle said Norton would consider holding such meetings with tribal leaders during the next 60 days.

"Secretary Norton has met with many American Indian tribes, leaders and members," said Pfeifle. "She'll continue to do that in an ongoing process to make clear our commitment to improving the lives of American Indians."

Spokesperson Stephanie Hanna, however, said that there probably wouldn't be any public meetings like the ones the Interior held in 1999 with tribes and interested parties. Five were held throughout the country as part of the Interior's formal government-to-government consultation policy.

After the 120 days are up, Norton could accept the regulations without changes. Should she propose modifications, it could be several months before they are again finalized.

Get the Previously Finalized Regulations:
PDF [177k]

Relevant Links:
Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation -
Land into Trust, National Congress of American Indians - Land into Trust, NCAI 2001 Resolution -

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Towns worried about trust lands (4/13)
Trust land regulations in limbo (4/12)