Tribal lead­ers call land-use bill step in right di­rec­tion

Imperial Valley Press - - FRONT PAGE -

WASH­ING­TON (AP) — Tribal lead­ers backed a House bill Wed­nes­day that would give tribes the abil­ity to con­trol more of their land, in­stead of hav­ing to get fed­eral ap­proval for virtually any use.

The Amer­i­can In­dian Em­pow­er­ment Act would let tribes shift fed­er­ally con­trolled trust land to “re­stricted fee land,” a move that could save mil­lions of dol­lars that tribes now spend on “bur­den­some reg­u­la­tion,” while restor­ing a level of tribal sovereignty.

While they called the bill a step in the right di­rec­tion, how­ever, wit­nesses said they are con­cerned about am­bi­gu­i­ties in the thin, three-page bill that “could al­low state or lo­cal gov­ern­ments to im­ple­ment prop­erty taxes on tribal land,” among other is­sues.

Navajo Na­tion Vice Pres­i­dent Jonathan Nez said that clar­i­fy­ing those is­sues is ne­c­es­sary for tribes who, “given our his­tory with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment . are rightly con­cerned about any fur­ther loss of our lands.”

But with slight changes, wit­nesses said at a hear­ing of House Nat­u­ral Re­sources sub­com­mit­tee, the bill would greatly ben­e­fit In­dian Coun­try.

Cur­rently, Nez said, even small tasks are la­bo­ri­ous and ex­pen­sive for tribes. He pointed to road re­pairs that the state can do “in days” in most of Ari­zona.

“But when it comes to deal­ing with road in­fra­struc­ture on our na­tion . we have to wait for BIA (the Bu­reau of In­dian Af­fairs) on the reg­u­la­tions, we would have to go through en­vi­ron­men­tal re­views, right-of-way ap­pli­ca­tions,” Nez told the com­mit­tee . “And it takes years sir, and a lot of re­sources.”

He said bu­reau­cracy was in part to blame for prob­lems with elec­tric­ity and wa­ter, which he said “are not helped by the cur­rent re­quire­ment that we gain ad­di­tional ap­provals from the Depart­ment of In­te­rior

for rights-of-way per­mits across our own lands.”

Those de­lays come with a cost: Nez said that of “the dol­lars that go to In­dian Coun­try to im­prove the roads, mil­lions of dol­lars are uti­lized to go just to those clear­ances, and rightof-ways alone.”

Lummi Na­tion Coun­cil Mem­ber Henry Cagey said the cur­rent sys­tem “in­ter­feres with the sov­er­eign author­ity of the tribal gov­ern­ment to de­ter­mine what is ap­pro­pri­ate use of our own land.” By shift­ing trust land to re­stricted fee lands, which are “not con­sid­ered owned by the United States,” tribal lead­ers have ex­clu­sive man­age­ment rights for the land.

Cagey said the bill “stream­lines land-use reg­u­la­tion and makes it eas­ier to de­velop such things as hous­ing or busi­nesses.”

Eric Hen­son, an ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for eco­nomic con­sult­ing com­pany Com­pass Lex­e­con, said the bill is a “very pos­i­tive move for­ward” but that there are “a few clar­i­fy­ing things” that need to be ad­dressed to avoid un­fore­seen con­se­quences.

One con­cern raised by Hen­son is the lack of spe­cific lan­guage about tax­a­tion in the bill, which could open the door to other gov­ern­ments tax­ing the re­stricted fee lands. Hen­son, who works with the Har­vard Project on Amer­i­can

In­dian Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment, said it’s “di­min­ish­ing” to the sovereignty of tribal gov­ern­ments to dic­tate how they can tax their lands. “We should treat In­dian na­tions as na­tions,” Hen­son said. “You wouldn’t call France, and say, ‘Hey, don’t tax your cit­i­zens be­cause we are go­ing to do it in­stead . Why don’t you guys start ex­port­ing more baguettes?’ That would be crazy.” Nez said the bill should also in­clude lan­guage to let tribes “elect to re­vert land back to trust land from re­stricted fed­eral land if they deem it in their best in­ter­est.”

Hen­son said tribes could de­cide to put land back into trust for any num­ber of rea­sons,

in­clud­ing un­ex­pected taxes lever­aged by state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments and other “un­fore­seen con­se­quences.”

This is the fourth time Rep. Don Young. R-Alaska, has in­tro­duced the bill. No pre­vi­ous ver­sion has ever got­ten out of com­mit­tee.

But Cagey and other pan­elists said it’s time for the bill, that tribes are able to reg­u­late them­selves.

“What we’re ask­ing the com­mit­tee to do is what’s best for us,” Cagey said. “Not what’s best for the busi­nesses, or the state or the county or the United States, but what’s best for the In­dian peo­ple.”

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