Editorial: Reform DOI, not the trust responsibility
Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Tribes should not have to wait months, or even years, to get federal approval for energy projects on their land. Bureaucratic delays only make it harder for tribes and Indian people to enjoy true economic self-sufficiency.

But relief to this age-old situation is not found in the energy bill that thankfully failed to clear the Senate last week. The death of the 1,100-page measure should send lawmakers back to the drawing board to root out the real culprit: the Department of the Interior.

For when it comes to energy, land-into-trust, loans or just about anything else, bottlenecks in the process can be traced to DOI. Wondering why that critical lease agreement hasn't been approved? It's sitting on someone's desk in Washington, D.C., awaiting 10 signatures by government attorneys whose job usually involves saying "no" to Indians.

The lawmakers who crafted the energy package know this. "The maze of statutes, rules and regulations applicable to energy mineral leasing imposes real burdens on the development of Indian minerals and discourages industry from pursuing leases of Indian resources," Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana, wrote in an Indian Country Today editorial this July.

Yet instead of confronting the root problem, the lawmakers pretended it didn't exist. Instead of working with tribes to streamline DOI, they streamlined the trust responsibility. Their bill let DOI off the hook at the expense of tribes.

So they could have hardly been surprised when the Navajo Nation, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Indian environmentalists and others sounded the alarm. It took a lot of time, effort and money for tribes to get their point across, and they weren't always heard by their own advocates.

The political fallout was fierce -- Campbell at one point accused the Navajo Nation of using the debate to revive its $600 million breach of trust case. Democrats stepped in and demanded "site visits," NEPA reviews and other bells and whistles. Senator Pete Domenici, a Republican with close ties to tribes in his home state of New Mexico, proudly read a list of tribes that he "assumed" favored his bill. Apparently, assumption is passing for consultation these days.

The irony is that all of this occurred as the Bush administration said it was reorganizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs to improve services to Indian Country. A logical person would conclude that this shuffle would make it easier for tribes to navigate the maze.

But as everyone knows, this couldn't be farther from the truth. The reorganization, like the energy bill, put the cart before the horse. Instead of attacking the underlying processes, the administration and the Republican-led Congress imposed quick fixes and then demanded that Indian Country accept them.

That's not how tribal-federal relations should work these days.

Fortunately, this week's inaction in the Senate presents an opportunity for real reform. Leaders in Congress must work with tribes on an energy bill that improves DOI without sacrificing the trust relationship. If the maze of statutes, rules and regulations is the problem, then address them -- don't pretend they don't exist.

Similarly, the Bush administration must listen to tribes to ensure that the "to-be" re-engineering project brings change where it matters the most, like leasing, realty, land-into-trust, rights-of-way and appraisals. If it doesn't address these areas, then it's all been a colossal waste of energy -- again at the expense of tribes.

Related Stories:
GOP leaders release second draft of energy bill (09/30)
Navajo Nation's Shirley slams energy bill (7/22)
Senate takes up Indian energy title (6/12)
Navajo Nation opposes energy bill (6/6)
Indian energy title adopted without changes (04/30)
Tribes weigh effects of energy legislation on trust (03/20)
Navajo Nation tussles with new trust 'philosophy' (03/20)
Interior opposes oversight in energy bill (03/20)
High court ruling makes 'passive' trustee of U.S. (3/5)

All stories in the Indianz.Com Archive are available for publishing under a Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)