Members of Congress Want More Native Control of Cobell Buyback Program

Rob Capriccioso

Ten Republican members of Congress have sent U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell a new letter saying that they want her department to strengthen the land buyback portion of the Cobell settlement in ways that would give tribes more control.

“As was aired during an April 3, 2014 Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs hearing, a major criticism of the roll-out of the program is the Department’s insistence that it is without authority to permit the tribes to carry out what are in reality the most important functions relative to the program,” the Congress members wrote in their letter, dated May 22. “These functions include making final offers to willing sellers, rendering payment for interests sold, and others.”

The land buyback program was created as part of the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement between the Obama administration and the lead plaintiffs in the trust case. The program, meant to reduce fractionation of lands in Indian country caused by historical federal bureaucracies, encompasses $1.9 billion of the overall settlement.

Interior has 10 years from the approval of the settlement in 2011 to buy lands from individuals and then make offers to tribes for them to purchase the lands. At the end of 10 years, any unspent money would go back to the federal government.

Interior officials have taken the position that they should be in control of the administration of the program, and they say the congressional law that authorized the program requires it.

But the Congress members say that is not so. They point in their letter to language in the settlement agreement that would allow Interior to relinquish power to allow an “entity of the tribal government to carry out some or all of the Secretary’s land acquisition program….”

“Given the 10-year authority for the program is running, we urge the Department to immediately take whatever steps are necessary to permit Indian tribes – at their request – to assume as many of the functions of the land acquisition program that they have the ability to administer,” the Congress members wrote.


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