Representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Photo: Peter

Landowners from Umatilla Tribes see another round of Cobell buy-back offers

Landowners from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are benefiting from a second round of the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.

The tribe was one of the first to participate in the program. During the Obama administration, the equivalent of 10,172 acres was restored to tribal ownership, with individual Indian landowners receiving more than $12.4 million for their fractional interests, according to data from the Department of the Interior.

“The Buy-Back Program provides a range of benefits – to landowners, to tribal nations, and to local communities,” program director John McClanahan said in a press release on Tuesday.

Additional offers just went out on the reservation in Oregon, McClanahan said. Interested landowners have until August 14 to accept.

"The Umatilla Tribe is pleased to be working again with the Buy-Back Program to achieve our mutual goals,” said Bill Tovey, the director of economic and community development on the reservation.

An outreach meeting was held on Monday and several more are taking place in June and July as part of the process.

Participation in the program is entirely voluntary. Once landowners are presented with offers for their fractional interests, they have 60 days to make a decision

After the individuals are paid, their interests are then transferred to the tribe, the original owners of the land.

The Land Buy-Back Program was created by the $3.4 billion settlement to the Cobell trust fund lawsuit. To stem the fractionation of Indian lands, in which parcels become owned by a growing number of individuals, and to promote tribal self-determination, $1.9 billion was set aside for the initiative.

As of June 8, individual Indians have received more than $1.26 billion for their fractional interests. The equivalent of 2.162 million acres has been restored to tribes.

But with the funds drying up, the Trump administration last July announced a change in the program's direction. Without consulting tribes, the department cut back the number of reservations that were to benefit from around 70 to just 20.

Of the 20 still on the implementation schedule, 12 represent reservations, such as Umatilla, where landowners previously saw offers. And of those repeats, five happen to be located in Montana, the home state of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a Navy SEAL veteran has been adopted into the Fort Peck Tribes.

Despite the shift, the reservations seeing a second round of offers aren't actually getting "new" money. The offers at Umatilla, for example, are being drawn from the same pool of funds, around $57.8 million, that went out during the Obama era.

According to the department, 39 percent of those offers were accepted, so the second round could increase the rate at Umatilla. The national average has been 45 percent, though some reservations have seen higher acceptance rates.

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

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