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Feds promise to streamline approval of Indian land-use requests

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Trust lands in the U.S.

• Amount of tribal land held in trust: 56.2 million acres
• Largest plot of trust land: 16 million acres (The Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah)
• Smallest plot of trust land: 1.32 acres (Cemetery of the Pit River Tribe in California)
• Number of tribal parcels: 326

WASHINGTON – The Interior Department outlined a series of changes Monday on how it leases Native American reservation land, moves that it hopes will promote renewable energy and increase homeownership.

The most obvious change is a new 30-day deadline to process residential applications and a 60-day limit on business-related applications. Previously, there was no ceiling on how long the process could take.

“It will require the government to act,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a Monday conference call. “The government cannot sit on its hands, as it often has done.”

Salazar said that under current regulations, which have been in place since 1955, housing and business applications could be delayed for years. In some cases, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is not even required to acknowledge receipt of an application, he said.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk said delays in lease approvals under the current system have stalled investment opportunities.

“In today’s economy, banks and business partners cannot wait that long to move a business forward,” he said.

Under the proposed changes, the BIA can negotiate an extension of the 30- or 60-day deadlines if the application requires it. But if no action is taken by the deadline, the lease would be approved as applied.

The deadlines could be the most effective of all the proposed changes, said Carl Artman, an Arizona State University professor and former assistant secretary of Indian Affairs.

“Every major tribe with commercial property has had issues with the BIA on how they (government officials) approve the lease and how long it takes,” he said.

Similar efforts have been made by the Interior Department in the past, Artman said, but studying and applying new regulations for tribal issues usually takes too long to be completed before a new administration takes over.

“They keep pushing the ball forward a little bit,” he said.

Reservation land, which is held in trust by the federal government, does not currently have separate regulations for business and residential leases – only a distinction between agricultural use and everything else. The proposed rules would create categories for residential, business and renewable energy uses.

“The BIA treats a lease for a single-family home the same way it treats a large industrial organization or a wind farm,” Salazar said.

The Interior Department said in a news release on the proposed changes that having a separate category to streamline renewable energy proposals should boost the sector, including solar plants in the Southwest.

But Artman said leasing delays are only one of many snags facing renewable-energy projects. The complex ownership structure of tribal land, a lack of transmission wires and right-of-way questions still impede renewable energy development on tribal land.

“I don’t know if changing the leasing regulations will overcome the problems that are out there that have occurred for generations,” he said.

Other changes call for:

- Lifting the current requirement that the federal government has to approve temporary events such as parades, community fairs or bake sales.

- Allowing lessees to agree to subleases and mortgages at any time, instead of needing an advance OK from the government.

- Letting the BIA waive requirements for performance bonds and insurance for projects on trust lands.

- Doing away with the mandatory federal appraisals of land in a project.

A 60-day comment period on the changes began Monday, and the Interior Department is planning consultation meetings around the country. Echo Hawk said the department wants to finalize the rules by summer.

Salazar said the leasing reforms are part of new initiatives to promote tribal sovereignty. In a question-and-answer release explaining the rules, the department said it promotes a “fix” for a 2009 Supreme Court ruling, Carcieri v. Salazar, that tribes have said calls into question their control of reservation lands.

“We want to carry out our trust responsibilities in a different way,” Salazar said.