Biden Administration Makes It Easier For Tribes To Reacquire Lands

Tuesday's actions “unwind the bureaucratic knot" that the Trump administration created in the process of placing lands into trust, one Interior official said.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House on April 23.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House on April 23.
Alex Wong via Getty Images

The Interior Department on Tuesday moved to make it easier for tribal nations to place lands into trust, reversing several Trump-era actions that it says undermined tribal sovereignty.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, herself a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe of New Mexico, signed a secretarial order giving regional directors at the Bureau of Indian Affairs the authority to review and approve land-into-trust applications. That reverses a 2017 action from the Trump administration that gave that authority to staff at Interior’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., which Biden officials say caused significant delays in the process.

“At Interior, we have an obligation to work with Tribes to protect their lands and ensure that each Tribe has a homeland where its citizens can live together and lead safe and fulfilling lives,” Haaland said in a statement. “Our actions today will help us meet that obligation and will help empower Tribes to determine how their lands are used — from conservation to economic development projects.”

In addition to Haaland’s secretarial order, Interior’s top lawyer rescinded several Trump-era legal opinions that the Biden administration said made it harder for Native American and Alaska Native tribes to acquire lands. The Interior Department is responsible for honoring the government’s trust and treaty responsibilities to tribes, and lands held in trust are key for tribal economic development, community housing and law enforcement jurisdiction.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, Interior officials said that during President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, 560,000 acres of land were placed into trust for tribes. The Trump administration placed only 75,000 acres into trust during its four years in office.

Tuesday’s actions “unwind the bureaucratic knot that was created by the last administration,” an Interior department official said on call with reporters.

Tribal governments currently have approximately 1,000 applications to place some 200,000 acres into trust, according to Interior. The majority of those lands are located within existing reservation boundaries.

Along with streamlining the application process, the administrative effort will save tribes money, according to agency officials on the call. The longer the Interior Department takes to review an application, the longer a tribal government has to pay taxes on that land to other governments.

“These changes reflect policy priorities that really are driven by Indian Country,” an Interior official said Tuesday. “Secretary Haaland wants to make sure that our policy agenda, especially when it comes to tribal lands, which is at the center of the government-to-government relationship, reflects the importance of Indian lands and tribal sovereignty over those lands.”

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