By Michael L. Connor, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior
When the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations (Buy-Back Program) mailed its first set of purchase offers back in December 2013, to landowners with fractional land interests on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, it was hard to imagine the impact the Program would have across Indian Country. But, after reaching agreements with 41 tribes to cooperatively implement the Program, its progress has exceeded expectations.
In just three years, Buy-Back Program payments to interested landowners have exceeded $1 billion, and we’ve secured the potential for tribes to manage more than 11,000 tracts of land.
Every day we are seeing the difference being made by this Program, which is just one example of this Administration’s commitment to provide more valuable options for landowners, their families, and tribal communities for the benefit of generations to come. The Department has been taking significant and lasting steps toward fulfilling President Obama’s goal of strengthening and investing in tribal communities through this exceptional opportunity. I believe that the partnerships and collaboration we have entered into will have a lasting, positive impact on relationships with tribal nations for years to come.
We have much progress to celebrate together.
The Buy-Back Program has thus far made more than $2.5 billion in offers to nearly 126,000 individuals – half of all eligible landowners. The equivalent of almost 1.9 million acres of land has been transferred in trust to tribal governments. Tribal ownership is now greater than 50 percent in more than 11,000 tracts, allowing for more efficient and effective use of the land for the benefit of tribal communities.
As of this month, Interior has transferred more than $47 million to the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund, which provides financial assistance through scholarships to American Indian and Alaska Native students. Interior makes quarterly transfers to the Scholarship Fund as a result of Buy-Back Program sales. The Scholarship Fund is overseen by the Cobell Board of Trustees, which has awarded nearly 1,800 scholarships totaling more than $5.25 million to nearly 1,000 Native American students for undergraduate and graduate study to date.
Our government-to-government working relationship with tribes across Indian Country has directly led to the Program’s successes thus far. The Program works with tribes to tailor implementation strategies to the needs and culture of each tribe, including partnering with tribes through agreements, sharing information and data, considering tribal feedback when developing the Program’s implementation schedule, and working to value and acquire lands that are a tribal priority. To date, the Program has entered into agreements with 41 tribes to implement land consolidation activities on their reservations.
Overall, the Buy-Back Program’s implementation schedule includes 105 locations, which reflects more than 96 percent of all landowners with fractional interests and more than 98 percent of both the purchasable fractional interests and equivalent acres in Program-eligible areas. The Program is managing resources in a manner that ensures that funds will still be available to make offers at all of these locations.
Our pursuit of this aggressive implementation schedule will provide new opportunities, but it will also yield new challenges. I have encouraged federal staff and tribal leaders to continue to maintain high levels of cooperation and communication to address any issues and maximize this unique opportunity before us. I hope Interior’s work to gain insight and leverage lessons learned from each location will remain constant throughout the life of the Program.
Even with the Program’s significant progress to date, fractionation will continue to be an extremely complicated, ongoing problem in the long-term. The Program estimates that more than four million equivalent purchasable fractionated acres may still exist after the fund is fully expended in 2022. And because fractionation grows each day, continued land consolidation efforts and new solutions will be necessary to preserve and strengthen trust lands.
That is why we have begun a discussion with Indian Country and Congress to think strategically about how to apply best practices from the Program to continue efforts to reduce fractionation beyond 2022. We need sustained departmental, Congressional, and tribal attention to address this issue in order to maximize the value of the land base for the benefit of tribal communities.
As my time at the Department comes to a close, I want to thank the many offices across Interior that will continue to play key roles in Program implementation. I want to thank tribal leaders and landowners across Indian Country for their patience, for their engagement, and for their faith that we could work together to deliver on this unique moment for Indian Country.
I look forward to tracking the Program’s continued success, and to seeing its impact for generations to come.