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Interior hits the road with new trust reform initiative

The Bush administration is launching a new round of trust reform talks, the likes of which haven't been seen since the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the controversial BITAM proposal.

The first meeting takes place over two days in Albuquerque, New Mexico, next week. Interior Department officials say at least four more sessions are being planned and that everything -- from leases to land-into-trust applications to fees for trust services -- is on the table.

"We'll be taking lots of comments and hearing from Indian tribes, plus the individuals, on how we want to move forward," Donna Erwin, the deputy Special Trustee for American Indians, said in an interview on Monday.

The proposed regulations has been circulating in Indian Country since late December. The draft covers a wide range of trust and trust-related issues, including probate, land title, trust fund accounting and whereabouts unknown.

Comments are being accepted on the draft until March 3, said Michelle Singer, a Bureau of Indian Affairs attorney and former chief of staff at the Office of Special Trustee. The department will take three to four weeks to review the comments before publishing the regulations in the Federal Register, she said.

That will trigger another 60-day comment period, after which the regulations could be finalized. Singer said some of the regulations are needed by June in order to meet the requirements of the American Indian Probate Reform Act, a new law that is designed to streamline the probate of Indian estates and consolidate highly fractionated parcels of Indian land.

"There are portions of the act that won't be useful unless we have implemented regulations, so it's important we have those in place," she said on Monday. The regulations not related to the act could be implemented by the end of the year, she said.

The last time the administration took its trust reform effort on the road, officials were met with widespread resistance, first to the proposal to strip the BIA of its fiduciary trust responsibilities, and then to the complete reorganization of the agency. Tribes were opposed to both initiatives.

Combined with the mounting pressures of the Cobell v. Norton trust fund lawsuit, officials walked away from the table and said they would move forward with the reorganization with or without the backing of tribes. A joint federal-tribal trust reform task force was quickly abandoned.

The latest effort has not generated much discussion in Indian Country. But F. Michael Willis, an attorney who represents tribes, said the regulations require close scrutiny due to some of the broad changes being proposed, particularly to the land-into-trust process.

"It's something in the range of 200 pages ... that would be rewritten with new regulations," he said at the United South and Eastern Tribes conference in the Washington, D.C.-area yesterday. "The way those get rewritten and how they incorporate tribal perspectives is really something to keep an eye on."

Willis acknowledged that some of regulations are outdated and probably nee to be revised. But he said an "internal" departmental group has been working on the proposal, mostly to the exclusion of Indian Country.

"Only recently have tribes been invited into that process," Willis told tribal leaders. Based on his preliminary review of the regulations for trust land acquisitions, he said the proposal would "dramatically curtail tribal rights."

"The new fee-to-trust regulations that Interior has drafted are very burdensome on tribes and provide an unprecedented 'veto' right of surrounding communities in determining whether a fee-to-trust application is granted," he said.

Erwin, in the interview on Monday, argued that the update is needed to prevent existing regulations from becoming "stale." Singer noted that the land-into-trust regulations were rescinded more than five years ago and have been on the back burner ever since then.

The regulations are independent of another BIA effort to deal with land-into-trust applications for gaming sites. Those are being handled by George Skibine, the director of BIA's Office of Indian Gaming Management, who is being pressed to come up with an implementation plan by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Next week's meeting takes place February 14-15 at the Hotel Albuquerque at 800 Rio Grande Boulevard NW, in downtown Albuquerque. The sessions will run from 8am to 5pm, the BIA said yesterday.

The schedule for future meetings is still being developed. Some regional meetings might be held to discuss specific issues of interest to those regions.

Relevant Documents:
Proposed Regulation Changes (Posted by the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association)

Jim Cason Letter:
Dear Tribal Leader (January 26, 2006)

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -
Intertribal Trust Fund Monitoring Association -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -