Interior Begins Implementation of Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations

During the past year, the Department of the Interior developed its land buy-back program (“Program”) to implement the land consolidation requirements contained in the Cobell Settlement Agreement (“Settlement”).  The Settlement established a $1.9 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund (“Fund”) for tribes to consolidate fractional land interests across Indian Country over a ten year period.  The Program’s purpose is to facilitate distribution of the Fund.  It sets out a process for individual owners of fractional land interests who want to sell their interests to receive a fair market value payment for those interests.  All lands sold will be then be held in trust for the tribe with jurisdiction over the parcel sold.

The Fund amount may not be sufficient to purchase all fractional interests that exist across Indian country.  Accordingly, the Department has developed an implementation strategy aimed at acquisitions that “best reduce fractionation, address the effect of allotment, promote tribal sovereignty, and facilitate economic development.”  Specifically, the Department is targeting 40 reservations with approximately 90 percent of the total fractional interests in Indian country (“Targeted Reservations”).  To maximize the number of reservations participating in the Program (including the 110 reservations that have fractional interests but are not included among the Targeted Reservations), the Department intends to develop flexible purchase ceilings at each reservation where the Program is active.  Using a formula that takes into account factors relevant to fractionation, the Department will cap the amount of the Fund that can be used to purchase fractional interests within any one reservation.  The Department is also interested in entering into cooperative agreements with tribes, which would make additional funds available for tribes to carry out various aspects of the Program, including owner outreach and education.

The Department is currently holding an open solicitation period ending in March 2014, inviting tribes with jurisdiction over the Targeted Reservations to submit letters of interest or cooperative agreement applications for participation in the Program.  Targeted Reservation tribes that do not submit anything during the solicitation period will be scheduled for implementation directly by the Program.  While at least some tribes with less fractioned lands will be part of the Program, it is less clear the level of participation these tribes will enjoy in the early implementation of the Program.

The Department entered into its first cooperative agreement in December with the Oglala Lakota Nation, and has made purchase offers on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Makah Indian Reservation.  Although the Makah reservation is not identified as a Targeted Reservation, the tribe facilitated the offers through informal collaboration with Program staff.  The Department has indicated that while it intends to include a limited number of less fractionated lands in its early implementation efforts, it does not expect that the Program will focus on buy back efforts in most of the less fractionated lands until fiscal year 2017.  The number of interested sellers in a particular location will be an important factor in the Department’s assessment of where to spend the remainder of the Fund among the less fractionated lands.  Tribes with fractional interests on their reservations that are not listed as a Target Reservation should initiate contact with Program staff as soon as possible if they want to be considered for inclusion among the few less fractionated lands that will be included in early implementation efforts.  Even if they are not included in early implementation, tribes with less fractionated lands should continue to communicate with Program staff regarding the level of interest in the Program among fractional owners within their reservations, and should identify priority acquisitions of their fractionated trust lands.