In a phone call delivered to U.S. Senator Mark Begich’s office from the Department of Interior (DOI), DOI Announced the end of federal rules that have prohibited DOI from taking land into trust for Alaska Native tribes. The reversal of these regulations after much litigation brings Alaska tribes one step closer to tribal self-determination, which Begich has long advocated.
The opportunity for Alaska tribes to apply for land in trust through the DOI has long been denied. But Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn announced, after notifying Begich, the change in a Dear Tribal Leaders letter sent alongside draft regulations published in a federal register notice today. This comes after several months of pressure from Begich for administrative action on the issue—particularly in light of a recent ruling in the Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals that explicitly stated DOI has the authority, and Alaska tribes have the option, to apply for land in trust status.
Moving tribal lands into federal trust status is important because the transfer gives the tribe control of the use of the land, including the ability to manage public safety concerns and economic development projects.
In 2009 the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in Akiachak v Salazar in favor of Alaska Native federally recognized tribal governments. The State of Alaska appealed the case but the Court of Appeals did not grant a hearing, in effect ruling in favor of Alaska tribal governments. The ruling affirmed the administrative authority of the Secretary of Interior to take land into trust on behalf of Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribal governments.
“Akiachak v Salazar was a favorable ruling for Alaska Native tribal governments,” said Begich. “I certainly support and am mindful of the unique land status in Alaska with our ANCSA corporations. They have done and will continue to do a remarkable job providing economic opportunities in our state. It is my understanding that DOI’s draft regulations are not intended to disrupt ANCSA lands, and will apply solely to individual Native Allotments, and other lands owned by tribal governments. In my view, DOI’s actions today are an important step to ensure Alaska tribes are self-determined and can adequately address public safety, economic development, and other priorities on tribal lands.”
DOI’s proposed regulations are available at https://www.bia.gov/WhoWeAre/AS-IA/Consultation/index.htm. DOI will conduct consultation sessions at NCAI Mid-Year Conference in Anchorage, June 8-11 for stakeholders to provide comments.