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Judge blocks land-into-trust decisions in Alaska pending appeal

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

A federal judge has blocked the Obama administration from approving land-into-trust applications in Alaska pending an appeal to a higher court.

Last October, Judge Rudolph Contreras issued a landmark decision in favor of Alaska tribes. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has since proposed a rule to include Alaska in the land-into-trust process.

The proposed rule, which is open to public comments until June 30, is far from final. It could take months before that happens.

But Conteras nevertheless ordered the BIA not to approve any land-into-trust applications until the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals resolves the dispute. The state of Alaska asked for an injunction while it continues to litigate.

"In sum, all the parties would have expended a tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources engaging in the process of taking land into trust, to only have the Alaska exception restored if the D.C. Circuit disagrees with this court," Contreras said in decision on Thursday. "All parties would be harmed by any confusion and ensuing litigation created by attempts to undo the land into trust determinations. In order to make the process as efficient as possible, and to reduce any confusion as to land title in Alaska, the court believes that the harm to all the parties weighs in favor of issuing a partial injunction here."

Contreras, however, said he would not stop the BIA from continuing the rulemaking process. The state had asked for a halt to the process.

"Because the rulemaking process marks such a preliminary step, and one with limited consequences as this court has already severed the Alaska exception to the land into trust regulations, the rulemaking process does not cause Alaska irreparable harm and therefore, the court will not enjoin the [Interior] Secretary from continuing that activity," Contreras wrote.

The judge also said the agency can review any land-into-trust applications that are submitted while the appeal continues.

"The accepting and reviewing of applications to take land into trust does not result in irreversible turning points, but rather marks the preliminary steps to begin considering the taking of land into trust," Contreras wrote. "As such, Alaska will not be irreparably harmed absent an order enjoining such activities."

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Akiachak Native Community v. Jewell.

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:
Opinion: Unanswered questions about land-into-trust in Alaska (6/26)
Geoff Strommer: Land-into-trust rule makes life safer in Alaska (05/20)
Tribal leaders laud inclusion of Alaska in land-into-trust process (05/09)
NCAI praises inclusion of Alaska tribes in land-into-trust process (5/2)
BIA accepts public comments on land-into-trust rule for Alaska (5/1)
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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