Jay Daniels: Bureau of Indian Affairs hinders tribes with inaction

A drilling well in Indian Country. Photo from Bureau of Indian Affairs

BIA should think about a name change
By Jay Daniels
Roundhouse Talk

The United States' federal bureaucracy is notorious for using acronyms for everything under the sun, which is fine when used internally among federal employees.

Believe me, there are so many acronyms internally and externally in the federal government, even the employees get left behind during meetings, teleconference calls and even communications between co-workers. It is an effective tool when you want to confuse clients, who are left wondering: What in the world was he or she talking about?

Recently, the former Minerals Management Services -- previously identified as MMS, responsible for the collection, disbursement, accounting and reporting of trust minerals -- conveniently changed their agency name to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR), pronounced like honor. This occurred after an ugly internal scandal that damaged the public’s trust in their management.

Wow, talk about trying to clean up your image. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) might want to follow ONRR’s lead and work on their image. Presently BIA’s acronym could be defined as the Bureau of Indecisiveness. Indecisiveness usually costs money that was meant to provide services to tribes.

A glaring example is the BIA effort to revise 25 Code of Federal Regulations, Rights-of-Way Over Indian Lands.

During my time as a draft team member, 10-20 employees were mandated to travel quite a bit and when the draft was completed, it languished on some desk and subsequently, because of attrition of former team members, a new team was implemented. The original draft was a great improvement over the current Indian Rights of Way Act of 1948.

The draft was basically reviewed a second time by the department Interior and again travel was required for the new draft team to discuss the changes. tribal consultations were a source of waste because previous comments were considered inadequate and new tribal consultations were conducted. Extensions of the tribal comment period have been approved several times, which has delayed the process.

Much of the complaints and opposition has come from those who can benefit the most from continued delays. Those include attorneys, consultants, training contractors, industry companies standing to benefit from the implementation of new regulations and some non-trust landowners who just like to be heard or disrupt progress because they love attention. Attorneys benefiting from tribal and consultants have been extremely vocal in their opposition by somehow attributing the changes to a hostile attempt by the BIA to steal Indian land.

Indian Country has been waiting about ten years for the new revised regulations to be approved and implemented. Most original draft team members have since retired resulting in the diminishment of institutional knowledge. Recent new team members most likely have never negotiated a right-of-way. However, Indian Country must take some blame as there have been numerous successful attempts to extend, and in some cases delay, the comment and implementation period.

Highlights of the proposed rights-of-way revisions include:
• eliminating the need to obtain BIA consent for surveying in preparation for a right-of-way;
• establishing timelines for BIA review of rights-of-way requests;
• clarifying processes for BIA review of right-of-way documents;allowing BIA disapproval only where there is a stated compelling reason;
• providing greater deference to Tribes on compensation for rights-of-way;
• clarifying the authority by which BIA approves rights-of-way;
• eliminating outdated requirements specific to different types of rights-of-way.

Together, these revisions will modernize the rights-of-way approval process while better supporting tribal self-determination. This rule also updates the regulations to be in a question-and-answer format, in compliance with “plain language” requirements.

Its time to take action and quit being indecisive. The current oil and gas boom in North Dakota, wind farms throughout Indian Country, and coal development necessitate the urgency to be able to make quicker responses to meet Indian Country needs. This important to obtain the trust responsibility of Indian landowners. Now the BIA can recreate their identity, or continue to be thought of as a bureau of indecisiveness.

Jay Daniels has 30 years of experience working in Indian Country, managing trust lands and is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. You can find resources and information at Roundhouse Talk.

Federal Register Notices:
Rights-of-Way on Indian Land (March 21, 2016)
Rights-of-Way on Indian Land (December 21, 2015)
Rights-of-Way on Indian Land (November 19, 2015)
Rights-of-Way on Indian Land (November 4, 2014)
Rights-of-Way on Indian Land (October 8, 2014)
Rights-of-Way on Indian Land (August 13, 2014)
Rights-of-Way on Indian Land (June 17, 2014)

Relevant Documents:
Energy Policy Act of 2005, Section 1813 Indian Land Rights-of-Way Study (May 2007)

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