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BIA makes changes to land-into-trust process

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is taking steps to reduce the land-into-trust backlog amid Congressional scrutiny, officials said this week.

Tribes and individual Indians have submitted about 1,300 applications to have their land placed in trust. With an average processing wait of 18 months, it would take the BIA decades to resolve the backlog.

But after further analysis of data from the agency's 12 regions, assistant secretary Carl Artman said the workload is much smaller. Only 217 applications are fully complete and ready for a decision, he said.

"That's what I would consider the real backlog," Artman said in an interview in his Washington, D.C., office on Wednesday.

Artman said the BIA has been looking at the applications on a regional basis to get a better handle on the backlog. So far, the analysis has revealed a wide range of practices and policies.

"They came up with their own databases, their own systems, their own way of doing things," Artman said of the regions' "entrepreneurial" efforts.

But that will be changing soon with the release of a new land-into-trust handbook within the next four to six weeks. The BIA is adopting one nationwide standard to help streamline the process, Artman said.

"It has to look the same," said Artman, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. "It has to have the same standard."

Artman said the uniform system will make it easier to help tribes and individual Indians move through the process. The BIA requires about 15 pieces of information -- ranging from a title report to an environmental analysis -- for a completed application.

Additionally, the BIA is using one computer system to keep track of the applications. Majel Russell, the principal deputy assistant secretary, said the title data for Indian lands went live on the Trust Asset and Accounting System (TAAMS) a few weeks ago.

"We have all the title now on one national system," said Russell, a member of the Crow Tribe of Montana. "It's much easier to ascertain exactly what the status of land is. Every single region is now on the TAAMS title system."

Despite the changes, Artman said he couldn't give a timeline on when the 217 applications would be cleared. "We'll figure all that out," he said.

Separately, Artman said the BIA has completed work on regulations for acquiring land into trust for gaming purposes. The Section 20 rules are now being considered by the White House Office of Management and Budget for publication in the Federal Register sometime in the next two to three months, he said.

The rules come into play when a tribe wants to open a casino on land taken into trust after 1988. The BIA did not have a codified Section 20 process since the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988.

The agency has been under fire on land-into-trust and Section 20. Members of Congress say they see little signs of progress.

"It sounds like gross incompetence to me," Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said at a hearing last month. "We don't even know how many applications exist."

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