Program to consolidate American Indian lands underway at Interior


A program to consolidate ownership of American Indian lands is underway, with the Interior Department announcing incentives for participation and plans for pilot efforts later this year.

In 2009, the federal government agreed to pay $3.4 billion to settle a lawsuit over its management over American Indian trust funds. That included a $1.9 billion fund to buy back what's called fractionated land from tribal members. Reservation land was divided up among individual tribal members in the late 1800s, and when they died, their land was then divided up among their heirs--but not physically, just in terms of shared ownership. Over time, some parcels of land have become severely fractionated, split among hundreds of people.

One 80-acre piece of land on a reservation in Wisconsin had 2,285 owners as of 2007. A majority of the owners must agree in order to do anything with the land, and any income from the land is split so many ways that individual owners often make less than what it costs the federal government to process the payment, according to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

Through the Cobell Trust Land Consolidation program, the Interior Department is set to buy land from willing sellers and consolidate it for tribal nations to put it to better use for their communities.

The department said June 18 that it plans to begin pilot efforts this year on 10 reservations. It has begun land research, valuation and outreach work at the Pine Ridge, Crow, Makah and Sisseton-Wahpeton reservations.

To encourage participation, the program will offer landowners a minimum of $75 per offer, no matter the value of the land. The department also decided to set purchase ceilings so that the funds won't be exhausted prematurely and to make sure the program reaches many different locations.

Up to $60 million in sales will be designated for an American Indian scholarship fund to be overseen by a board of trustees nominated by tribal governments, which the department said should also encourage owners to offer their land.

The program will also be tailored to the needs of each tribal nation through cooperative agreements with each one, the department says. Later this summer, this program plans to launch a website that includes templates for the creation of those agreements.

For more:
- go to the Interior Department announcement

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