Opinion: Unanswered questions about land-into-trust in 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

Writer questions the inclusion of Alaska tribes in the land-into-trust process:
What happens when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior takes lands into trust for Indian tribes? A recent national report recommends doing so to improve social conditions in our rural Alaska villages. While I do not presume to be an Indian law expert, I do know the issue is enormously complex.

In the Lower 48, when ownership of land is transferred to a tribe, the tribe can ask the Secretary to put it in trust status. According to a 2013 Pepperdine Law Review article the process, known as "fee-to-trust," is fervently opposed by many affected communities because the land is no longer subject to state and local taxation or zoning, planning, fish and game and other regulatory controls. Alaska tribes are asking for this fee-to-trust privilege. Trust status would provide a territorial land base for tribal governing authority -- two acres here, five acres there, 40 or 400 acres somewhere else. Presumably, lands could be given or sold to a tribe by regional or village Native corporations, by Native allotment owners (allotments exist extensively throughout Alaska), by any Native or non-Native individual or business interested in establishing a tribal business free of state taxation and regulation within the trust lands.

Those who understand Indian law best are those who passionately and patiently advocate for increased tribal authority and financial benefit available through judicious use of this complex body of law. They do not necessarily have the broader interests of all Alaskans in mind.

Why might Alaska tribes want lands put into federal trust? Several reasons come to mind. To improve the social and economic status of tribal members is the most frequently stated reason. But this seems illogical; virtually all reservations in the Lower 48 are on Indian country trust lands, and they do not generally seem to be good models for social or economic health.

Get the Story:
Mary Bishop: Issues unresolved in proposal for Alaska Native land in federal trust (The Alaska Dispatch 6/25)

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)

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