Interior Department consults tribes about new trust reform law

Tribal members learn more about the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations during a listening session in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 3, 2016. Photo by US Department of the Interior via Flickr

The Interior Department is reaching out to Indian Country about a new law that promises dramatic changes to the agency's trust management structure.

Tribes supported H.R.812, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, because it could lead to the dismantling of the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. They are hoping the agency's duties, personnel and budget will be transferred to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

That issue -- as well as the creation of an Under Secretary for Indian Affairs position at the department -- is on the agenda for the upcoming consultations and listening sessions. Tribes are also being asked about the handling of appraisals and valuations of trust lands.

"We look forward to your input on our plans for implementing this historic act," Deputy Secretary Michael Connor, the second-in-command at Interior, wrote in a July 13 letter to tribes.

The Obama administration opposed H.R.812 due to the OST provision. But tribes pointed out that the new law does not actually mandate the elimination of the agency -- it instead requires the Secretary of the Interior to prepare a report on the potential transfer of its duties to the BIA and other agencies at the department.

"Submission of this information by the Secretary to Congress would serve only to inform Congress and Indian Country; it sets nothing in motion -- let alone the termination of the OST," Ernie Stensgar, the vice chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, wrote in a March 24 letter to Connor.

The Under Secretary isn't set in stone either, Stensgar noted in response to another criticism from the administration. H.R.812 specifically states that Interior "may" create the position.

"Whether or not an Under Secretary position should be established, therefore, would be entirely within the discretion of the Secretary," Stensgar wrote.

The meetings take place in August and September. The quick pace indicates the administration wants to leave its mark on the future of OST before a new president comes on board.

The schedule follows:
• August 17 - Green Bay, Wisconsin
• August 22 - Albuquerque, New Mexico
• August 26 - Minneapolis, Minnesota
• August 29 - Seattle, Washington
• August 31 - Billings, Montana
• September 7 - Tulsa, Oklahoma
• September 9 - Sioux Falls, South Dakota
• September 12 - Palm Springs, California
• September 19 - Teleconference

Federal Register Notice:
Tribal Consultation and Listening Sessions on Indian Trust Asset Reform Act (July 20, 2016)

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