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BIA opens public comment on land-into-trust rule for Alaska

A view of the Akiachak Native Community, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that prompted the Obama administration to include Alaska tribes in the land-into-trust process. Photo from Calista Corporation

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is accepting public comments on a rule that would include Alaska tribes in the land-into-trust process for the first time.

A notice in today's issue of the Federal Register modifies existing regulations to allow Alaska tribes to submit land-into-trust applications. The move came after a federal judge said the BIA can't treat Alaska Natives differently.

"With such status, Alaska’s tribal governments will have the opportunity to enhance their ability to regulate alcohol and generally protect the health, safety, and welfare of tribal members," the Native American Rights Fund said in a press release. NARF represented the four tribes and one Alaska Native individual who filed the lawsuit.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), the state's senior senator, welcomed the regulation. He has been calling on the BIA to implement the decision in Akiachak Native Community v. Jewell.

“Akiachak v Salazar was a favorable ruling for Alaska Native tribal governments,” Begich said in a press release. “I certainly support and am mindful of the unique land status in Alaska with our ANCSA corporations."

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said she was concerned. She was still reviewing the proposal but told Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, that it takes Alaska tribes in a different direction.

"It's raising questions from my perspective," Murkowski said yesterday at a hearing on an Indian energy bill. "It clearly represents a departure from 43 years of established policy in this area."

Murkowski was referring to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The BIA claimed the law prevented the acquisition of trust lands for Alaska tribes and Alaska Native individuals.

Judge Rudolph Contreras of the federal district court in Washington, D.C., disagreed. In a decision last September, he told the BIA to remove the Alaska exception in the land-into-trust rules.

“Restoring tribal lands to trust status is essential to ensure cultural preservation, self-determination and self-governance and to advance the social and economic development of tribal communities, Washburn said in a press release. "Yet for 228 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, the opportunity to request that land be taken into trust under the Department’s regulations is not available. We look forward to tribal consultations and public comments on this proposed rule.”

Comments are being accepted until June 30.

Get the Story:
Interior Department rule would set aside 'Indian country' lands in Alaska (The Anchorage Daily News 5/1)
Potential rule change could allow Alaska tribal land into trusts (Alaska Public Radio Network 5/1)
In move toward sovereignty, BIA moves to allow tribal land trusts (The Alaska Dispatch 4/30)

Federal Register Notice:
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (May 1, 2014)

Relevant Documents:
Dear Tribal Leader Letter from Kevin Washburn (April 30, 2014)

District Court Decisions:
Akiachak Native Community v. Jewell (September 30, 2013)
Akiachak Native Community v. Salazar (March 31, 2013)

Related Stories:
BIA proposes rule to include Alaska in land-into-trust process (4/30)
Judge deletes Alaska exception in land-into-trust regulations (10/02)
Sen. Begich supports land-into-trust decision for Alaska tribes (4/23)
APRN: NARF attorney discusses decision in land-into-trust case (04/09)
Decision in Alaska case could reopen land-into-trust regulation (4/5)
NARF calls land-into-trust case 'victory' for all Alaska tribes (4/3)
Judge rules tribes in Alaska can follow land-into-trust process (4/1)
Rep. Young won't support Alaska tribes for land-into-trust fix (03/20)

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