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BIA still having trouble accounting for land-into-trust

Senate Indian Affairs Committee on backlogs at the Department of the Interior.
Opening Statements

Panel 1: Carl Artman | Q&A

Panel 2 | Q&A [includes more of Carl Artman]

Webcast | Written Testimony
Over two years ago, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs for number of pending land-into-trust applications.

"Is it dozens? Thousands? Millions?" Dorgan said at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in May 2005.

A lot has changed since then. The BIA finally has a new leader in assistant secretary Carl Artman and Dorgan, who was vice chairman when he made the query, is now chairman due to the Democratic takeover of Congress.

But one thing has remained the same. The BIA still doesn't know how many land-into-trust applications are pending.

"It sounds like gross incompetence to me," Dorgan said yesterday. "We don't even know how many applications exist."

Artman, who began his post in March, acknowledged the problem. He said there is no way to determine the number of pending applications because each of the BIA's 12 regional offices does things differently.

"This is something that we discovered over the last few months," he said.

It's not clear what the BIA was discovering between the May 2005 hearing and the October 2007 one though.

In March, Artman told the National Congress of American Indians of 2,000 pending applications. That was a few days before he was confirmed by the Senate as the tenth assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

"Having a backlog of 2,000 -- I've heard even more applications -- is ridiculous," Artman said.

A month later, associate deputy secretary Jim Cason, who ran the BIA for more than a year after the sudden resignation of Artman's predecessor, confirmed that figure. At an Indian law conference in New Mexico, he said 2,000 applications were pending.

But when Indianz.Com asked about that number just a couple of weeks later, Artman changed his tune. He said there were only 1,300 pending applications, far fewer than Cason's figure, but high nonetheless.

Yesterday's hearing brought a slightly more accurate account -- 1,211 pending applications, Artman said. "The numbers that you have are about as accurate as we can get," he told the committee.

Beyond being unable to account for the pending applications, the BIA can't give tribes and individual Indians a deadline on when a decision might be made. Some tribes and tribal members have waited as short as six months for an answer while others have waited more than 20 years.

"For the last 25 years, we have absolutely no applications pass through from fee to trust," said Ron His Horse Is Thunder, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. "Absolutely none."

The tribe isn't terribly worried about its 10 pending applications for a total of 19,000 acres, His Horse Is Thunder said. It's the individual Indians who suffer the most due to the BIA's delays, he told the committee.

"They have had their applications in for just as long as the tribe," he said. "I know that a couple of our tribal members have lost their homes, have lost their land, due to tax foreclosures."

In hopes of streamlining the process, Artman promised the release of a "handbook" on land-into-trust. He said the handbook, which is coming in "weeks," would create a consistent system across all BIA regions for handling applications.

"It will at least have internal timelines and internal deadlines that we'll adhere to, Artman testified.

He also said the Interior Department plans to develop a tracking system for land-into-trust. He suggested that the Trust Asset Accounting and Management System (TAAMS) might be considered as a way to handle the applications, although other options are being considered.

TAAMS, however, has been reported to have major usability issues in the tracking of Indian trust leases. BIA employees in Palm Springs, California, recently told the Interior Department's Inspector General that they can't perform routine accounting or billing procedures with the $40 million system.

"If we can't measure, we can't gauge success," Artman told the committee.

Dorgan said he would call Artman back in six months for a progress report. "It just appears to be staggering incompetence," he said.

Committee Notice:
OVERSIGHT HEARING on Backlogs at the Department of the Interior: Land in to Trust Applications; Environmental Impact Statements; Probate; Appraisals and Lease Approvals (October 4, 2007)

Relevant Links:
Interior Department -