Bush administration rescinds land regulations
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Siding with local and state governments worried about gaming and the loss of tax revenues, the Bush administration has revoked a set of regulations aimed at helping tribes restore their already diminished land base.

Effective immediately, the Department of Interior is withdrawing the regulations, which had been finalized by the Clinton administration in January. A Federal Register notice published today announces the decision and comes after 10 months of stalling by President Bush and his political appointees.

It also comes as Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, who took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs in July, and his boss Secretary Gale Norton have rolled back a number of Clinton initiatives that benefited Indian Country. From federal recognition to the protection of sacred sites, the new administration has undone decisions that brought praise from tribal leaders but scorn from non-Indians.

"This is no surprise," said former Assistant Kevin Gover, assessing the latest assault. "The Bush administration has demonstrated -- in essence -- they favor state interests over tribal ones in Indian affairs."

"And this is bad news for the tribes."

First proposed in April 1999, the regulations sought to clarify how the Secretary of Interior takes land into trust for tribes. To develop standards, Gover and the BIA worked closely with tribal leaders, who viewed them as an improvement over a process that can take years to complete.

The regulations, however, drew complaints from local and state governments, as well as non-Indians. Trust land cannot be taxed, depriving communities of revenues. And even though a state governor must approve the acquisition of land when it is used for gaming, non-Indians felt the standards weren't tough enough.

Saying it hoped to balance these conflicting interests, the Bush administration has held back the regulations since taking over the White House, passing them from one appointee to another. After Bush himself put a hold on the rule for two months, Secretary Gale Norton in March delayed them for an additional four months.

She then deferred to McCaleb, who spent another three months soliciting and reviewing opinions on whether or not he should rescind the regulations. However, the entire effort appeared to have little success in resolving the thorny issues surrounding land-into-trust.

For example, the comments both Norton and McCaleb received were so disparate that no consensus could be drawn. So rather than try and amend parts of it, McCaleb said it was "clear" the entire rule needed to be revoked.

McCaleb added that he would begin "consulting with tribes" on a new set of standards. But there is little indication he will give the concerns of tribal leaders much weight over those of non-Indians, having ignored pleas from the National Congress of American Indians and others to keep the regulations as is.

Officials at NCAI, the largest and oldest tribal organization in the country, said they expected McCaleb's withdrawal. Tribal leaders plan to meet next week in Washington, D.C., to discuss strategy for working with the Bush administration on the new regulations.

Until then, the old standards remain in place. They were first codified in 1980 but the Interior has been authorized since 1934 to take land into trust for tribes.

The policy was instituted after tribes lost 90 million acres of land -- to state and local governments and non-Indians -- starting in 1887. Since then, only 8 million acres of land has been restored to tribes.

Get the Notice:
Text | PDF

Relevant Links:
Land into Trust, National Congress of American Indians -

Related Stories:
Land regulations targeted for withdrawal (8/13)
Norton delays land-into-trust regulations (4/16)