FROM THE ARCHIVE

Land policies under review at Interior

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WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2002

Internal dissatisfaction. Confusion. Controversy. Political pressure. Opposition to reform.

Another day in Indian trust?

Close, but not entirely. Those words were just a few a Congressionally-supported review panel levied at a Department of Interior agency for years of poorly handled land swaps.

In a scathing report, the Appraisal Foundation ripped the Bureau of Land Management's appraisal, or land valuation, program to shreds. A comprehensive review found a lack of standards, few qualified decision makers and apparent violations of law.

These deficiencies, the report said, and the agency's failure to fix them erode "public trust" in the federal government.

But the problem with the problems, so to speak, is that the the Interior has been aware of them for years. As far back as 1996, the department's Office of the Inspector General has questioned land swaps the West, where the Appraisal Foundation focused its probe.

And once again, the department is promising to respond to the concerns. Last week, a senior Washington, D.C., official announced a 90-day review of all pending exchanges.

"Our decision to begin this review is based in part, on findings in the Appraisal Foundation Report, which was paid for and requested by the BLM in June 2001," Jim Hughes, a policy official said.

The BLM has raised objections to the report. In a written response, an agency panel said the Foundation failed to back up some of its allegations.

"The unsupported conclusions do not help the BLM identify specific areas of confusion or misapplication of BLM policy," the response stated.

Hughes also said the Foundation was confused when it criticized land swaps that didn't appear to make financial sense. Deals approved by Congress don't need to pass appraisal standards, he wrote in an October 4 letter.

Whatever the dispute, the agency won't institute a moratorium pending reform of the system, as the Foundation suggested. It also didn't address a recommendation to establish a new, independent appraisal unit.

The BLM handles appraisal functions for 262 million surface acres of federal land. Appraisals of the trust property of tribes and individual Indian beneficiaries is overseen by the Office of the Special Trustee.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs used to manage the program but Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb earlier this year agreed to transfer authority to the OST. However, tribes on a trust reform task force have asked Secretary Gale Norton to restore the BIA's powers pending a departmental reorganization.

Separately, the BLM is charged with performing timely surveys of trust land but has never done so for the individual trust estate. According to department reports, there is a $62 million backlog.

Relevant Documents:
Appraisal Foundation Report (August 2002) | BLM Response (October 2002)

Relevant Links:
Appraisal Foundation - http://www.appraisalfoundation.org

Related Stories:
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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