The BIA's Cobell Land Buy Back Plan Is a Mess

Jay Daniels

The Cobell settlement, approved on November 24, 2011, provides for a $1.9 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund (Fund). The Settlement charges the U.S. Department of the Interior with the responsibility to use the Fund within a 10-year periodto acquire individual Indian land interest at fair market value as defined in the Indian Land Consolidation Act (ILCA). The overall goal of the Cobell Land Buy Back Program is to reduce the number of highly fractional interests through individually-owned Indian landconveyances to tribes.

This is just my opinion, but the present Cobell Land Buy Back Program is very flawed. I have said this from the beginning. The Land Buy Back Program was approved in November 2011. As of today, no highly fractionated interest has been acquired and the shelf life of the usage of the funds is allocated for only 10 years from the November 24, 2011 approval date of the Cobell settlement.

Recently, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced offers were issued to acquire interest on the Pine Ridge and Makah reservations. The issue is how did they determine land values pursuant to fair market value (FMV), or other determinations as required? How can they determine FMV that quickly? They most likely conducted a market analysis which doesn’t value property which should be based on improvements individually on each tract such as utilities and access. But rather market analysis values most properties at the same value whether there are improvements or not.

Also, there are several other reservations which have higher fractionated interests and those tribes have been bypassed. This means that when the BIA does start acquiring interest on those reservations, they will have less time to work on the acquisition of those interests. Wow, who was the genius who put together this plan? Common sense would seem to indicate that you take care of the biggest part of the task first and then float into the lesser tasks at the end so you can show some accomplishment and effort.

If this program can be salvaged, BIA needs to place folks in those positions who have worked for years in the land acquisition program to make the processfaster and smoother. Not going to happen though because they are too far into the process and their friends are entrenched in those jobs. I predicted this in my article entitled Cobell Land Buy Back could become a Land Give Back by the time it’s over. They had folks develop the plan who didn’t understand thefull process without input from the field. Doomed to fail but no one is making waves. It’s a backroom deal where the good old boys, or women, are calling the shots.

And finally, it’s easy to develop plans behind closed doors in Wash. D.C. by folks who have never worked on the frontlines, or at the agencies, where they have to deal with tribal members who are desperately waiting for a payment because their utilities are about to be shut off, their rent is past due and they face eviction, and without assistance from those frontline BIA staff, they have very little hope.

Once again, the Cobell Land Buy Back Program is flawed and Indian country is going to pay the price at the end. My recommendation is that land owners hang onto to their interests until they get what they want or deserve. The purpose of an appraisal doesn’t establish what you will get paid, but where you start negotiations. Appraisals, comprehensive and fair in its calculation is key.

Jay Daniels has 30 years of experience working in Indian Country, managing trust lands and is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. You can find resources and information at RoundhouseTalk.com.


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