Opinion: Take a modern approach to 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

Professor Jenny Bell-Jones offers perspective on the inclusion of Alaska tribes in the land-into-trust process:
The Akiachak decision removes discriminatory language from the Code of Federal Regulations and places Alaska tribes on an equal footing with their counterparts in the Lower 48. An appeal against this decision is essentially a request to allow discrimination to continue. The “Alaska exemption” prevented Alaska tribes from exercising their political rights guaranteed under U.S. law. With the exemption eliminated, tribes may now petition the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to take fee lands that they own into trust on their behalf. The petitions are considered on a case-by-case basis and success is not guaranteed. A temporary stay on processing the petitions is in place pending the outcome of the state’s appeal.

Tribes must own fee lands in order to submit a petition. Lands currently owned in fee by tribes in Alaska total around six million acres, with about four million consolidated in four large parcels, none of which are near Fairbanks. Smaller parcels across the state, ranging from hundreds to a few thousand acres and some smaller acreages encompassing townsites or lots comprise the remainder. For comparison, the state is entitled to 103 million acres and Alaska comprises around 375 million. The approximately 44 million acres of land owned by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporations would not qualify for trust petitions unless they were first transferred to tribes or corporations petitioned on behalf of tribes. At this time, no corporations have indicated they would convey their lands en masse to the tribes and doing so would require buy-in from shareholders. Akiachak does not require conveyance by the corporations.

Yes, Indian trust lands are exempt from state taxation. However, the Department of the Interior does not take lands into trust just to allow owners to avoid taxes. There are three reasons the United States will acquire land on behalf of Indian tribes: economic development, tribal self-determination or Indian housing. Tax evasion is not a qualifying reason.

Get the Story:
Jenny Bell-Jones: Indian country: a modern approach (The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 5/4)

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)

Federal Register Notice:
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (December 23, 2014)

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