Focus on trust reform leaves estate on sideline
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More than a year after a hold was put on regulations aimed at restoring the tribal land base, the Bush administration has failed to propose an alternative.

The inaction has many tribal leaders wondering. While they are happy with the increased attention placed on reforming management of $3.1 billion in tribal and individual trust assets, they wonder what good the effort will do if the 54-million-acre land estate isn't preserved and protected.

"All of that is our trust assets," said National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall. "It's a huge issue."

But Hall, like others throughout Indian Country, is disappointed with the way Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb have handled the issue. A national task force of tribal leaders spent two years with the Clinton administration to hash out regulations governing how land is taken into trust.

After Norton took over in January 2001, she delayed the rules and passed the buck along to McCaleb when he joined her team last summer. In November -- a week before a proposal to strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its trust duties was announced -- he finally decided to scrap the regulations altogether and said he would move forward with a new set.

But four months later, he has yet to begin work on a new consultation process with tribal leaders. Several issues he identified when he axed the rules have yet to be addressed, ones that would speed up an already contentious and slow-moving process.

To many, the delay is just another in a long list of failed promises. Lance Morgan, an official with the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, said he has grown tired of waiting for the BIA to approve, or possibly reject, a trust land request made nearly a decade ago.

As a result, he says the tribe has basically given up hope of ever receiving an answer. As head of a $60 million tribal corporation, he said he'd rather focus on economic development than on what the federal government thinks.

Land-into-trust officially began in 1934 when the allotment policy was repudiated by Congress. By that time, 90 million acres of land passed out of tribal hands, creating a complex web of Indian and non-Indian ownership that has tested the nation's courts many times.

Attempts to clarify the "checkerboard" situation across Indian Country haven't been successful, though. The regulations developed during the Clinton administration sought to put timelines and concrete standards in hopes of resolving the thorny debate.

Oposition has created significant roadblocks. Local and state governments, and occasionally tribes, frequently tie up land-into-trust requests in litigation for years.

Publicly, McCaleb has said he hopes the tribal land base will expand. "With economic growth, with the ability to buy fee land and to put it in trust within the reservation and adjacent to the reservation, . . . the Indian estate will grow," he said at an NCAI conference in late November.

BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling, however, dismissed the notion that McCaleb has done nothing to implement his goals. She said he has spent most of the past few months on trust management and reform.

Darling also noted that regulations do exist regarding trust lands and that applications are still being processed. She didn't know when McCaleb might begin consultation to develop new rules.

Ed. Note: Lance Morgan is chief executive officer of Ho-Chunk Inc., a tribal development corporation which owns Indianz.Com.

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

Related Stories:
McCaleb revokes trust land standards (11/9)
Land regulations targeted for withdrawal (8/13)
Norton delays land-into-trust regulations (4/16)