Chairman Harry Barnes of the Blackfeet Nation, left, with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Trump administration moves in new direction with Cobell buy-back program

With just $540 million left to spend, the Trump administration is changing course when it comes to the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.

In an announcement on Monday, the Department of the Interior dramatically cut back the number of reservations where landowners can expect to receive offers for their fractional interests. Instead of the 70 or so that were on the list toward the end of the Obama administration, only 20 remain on the implementation schedule.

And of the 20 still on the list, 12 represent reservations where landowners previously saw offers. And of those repeats, 5 happen to be based in Montana, the home state of Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“The revised strategy announced today maximizes the remaining dollars left for the implementation of the Buy-Back Program and seeks to achieve the greatest reduction of fractional interests, the largest number possible of landowners able to participate, and the most effective use of the department’s resources,” Jim Cason, the Associate Deputy Secretary at Interior, said in the announcement.

Though Cason noted that Congress plays a role in land consolidation, the shift in policy signals the eventual end of the Cobell program. He already told key lawmakers that the Trump administration does not plan on seeking more money for similar initiatives even though the buy-back has been popular in Indian Country

"I don't think there's any tribal leader that would say, 'Gee -- I don't want free money,'" Cason told the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs on May 23.

He continued his criticism a month later at the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians. With funds running out and no intention of asking for more, he told tribal leaders that it was a "waste of money" to acquire valuable interests on reservations.

"Essentially, we spent $1.3 billion in the last administration to essentially tread water," Cason said on June 14 on the homelands of the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut.

Former-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Blackfeet Nation Chairman Harry Barnes signed a cooperative agreement as part of the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations on May 3, 2016. Some $161.5 million eventually flowed through the reservation. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

The Trump administration's changes -- described by another official as "significant" -- reflect those concerns. For example, the department plans to target mineral interests with "no current economically viable mineral value."

And to prevent landowners from receiving seemingly large payouts, the department will target interests where an individual Indian holds less than than 25 percent in both the mineral and surface rights. During the hearing in May, Cason was eager to highlight a situation where $1.63 million was spent to acquire about 3 acres from just 2 individuals in southern California.

Additionally, the department plans to prioritize interests where a tribe, or even an individual Indian, is willing to contribute their own funds to consolidate land holdings. That's a major departure from one of the goals of the program, which was designed to address more than a century of setbacks that arose as a result of the disastrous allotment era.

"Well it's not necessarily free money," Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), the top Democrat on the House subcommittee, told Cason in May. "Remember they were the original owners of this land that was taken from them, pillaged from them."

The $3.4 billion settlement to the Cobell trust fund lawsuit included $1.9 billion for land consolidation. Through the program, individual Indians receive offers for their fractional, or small, interests but they are not required to accept. Any interests that are acquired are restored to tribes, the original owners of the land.

The Obama administration expended more than $1.1 billion of the fund through early January. Additional offers that went out before the announced changes boosted the figure to about $1.2 billion.

“As someone who has been involved with this program since its inception, this significant policy shift announced today is responsive to the tribal feedback we have received over the past several years,” said Mike Black, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who serves as the "acting" Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

The Trump administration's Land Buy-Back implementation list follows, with stars denoting reservations where offers were made during the Obama years. Double stars represent reservations in Secretary Zinke's home state that also saw offers during the Obama era:
  1. Blackfeet (Montana) **
  2. Bois Forte (Minnesota)
  3. Cheyenne and Arapaho (Oklahoma)
  4. Cheyenne River (South Dakota) *
  5. Crow (Montana) **
  6. Fond du Lac (Minnesota) *
  7. Fort Belknap (Montana) **
  8. Fort Berthold (North Dakota)
  9. Fort Peck (Montana) **
  10. Navajo (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah) *
  11. Northern Cheyenne (Montana) **
  12. Pine Ridge (South Dakota) *
  13. Rosebud (South Dakota) *
  14. Santee Sioux (Nebraska)
  15. Skokomish (Washington)
  16. Spirit Lake (North Dakota)
  17. Standing Rock (North and South Dakota) *
  18. Umatilla (Oregon) *
  19. Warm Springs (Oregon)
  20. Wind River (Wyoming)

Interior Department Report:
2016 Status Report: Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations (November 2016)

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