US says money for Indian land buys will come up short

AP Photo
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — An ambitious effort to restore tribal control over huge areas of privately owned land on American Indian reservations is projected to run out of money with millions of acres still unaddressed, according to a U.S. government report obtained by The Associated Press.

The Obama administration established the “land buyback program” under a $1.9 billion legal settlement that determined the government squandered billions of dollars it held in trust for tribes from royalties on oil and gas leases, grazing and other uses of Indian lands.

As part of that deal, federal officials agreed to spend $1.6 billion to purchase so-called fractionated parcels of land that have multiple owners, which makes them hard to sell or develop.

Yet more than 4 million acres potentially eligible for purchase will remain when the settlement money runs out in 2022, according to an Interior Department report.

The report was obtained by The AP in advance of its public release.

To date the buyback program has paid out almost $900 million to purchase the equivalent of 1.7 million acres on more than two dozen reservations.

The eligible parcels expected to remain after the settlement money runs out collectively are worth several billion dollars, said Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor.

“We’re making progress but there will still be a sizeable amount of acreage out there at the end of 2022,” Connor said. “We thought it appropriate to start thinking through that long-term issue right now.”

Interior officials said in the report they are considering asking Congress to make the program permanent so the land purchases can continue. A final decision will be made following consultations with lawmakers and tribal leaders, Interior officials said.

A spokesman for Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said the Obama administration emphasized when the case was settled that it needed only a 10-year window to accomplish its goals.

“It is important to address the issue of highly fractioned land in a manner that is fair to both the affected land owners and to tribes, while also demanding the requisite accountability from the administration,” said Barrasso press secretary Mike Danylak.

But an attorney for the National Congress of American Indians said it was assumed at the time of the settlement that the money would cover only some of the fractionated land on reservations. John Dossett, general counsel for the Washington D.C.-based group, said making the program permanent was an “excellent” idea.

Parcels of land bought through the program are transferred to tribal governments to be put to beneficial use – such as for home sites or business locations – or preserved as cultural or ceremonial sites

An 1887 law known as the Dawes Act split tribal lands into individual allotments that were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation.

The result has been that parcels of land on some reservations are owned by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individual Indians. That makes it all but impossible to sell or develop the land because of difficulties reaching consensus among so many owners.

Dossett said the problem of fractionated land would only worsen with each passing generation, as people with ownership interests die and the number of heirs grows.

The legal settlement resulted from a class-action lawsuit brought by Elouise Cobell of Montana’s Blackfeet tribe. Cobell, who died in 2011, successfully argued that Interior officials for decades mismanaged trust money being held on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Indian landowners.

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