HELENA, Mont. — U.S. government officials said Tuesday they are launching a $1.9 billion Native American land buyback program now that a nearly 17-year lawsuit over more than a century's worth of mismanaged trust royalties is settled.
The 10-year, $1.9 billion buyback program is the largest part of the $3.4 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., in 1996 and finalized last month.
Officials with the Interior Department and Bureau of Indian Affairs laid out the program's initial framework in a Tuesday news conference in Washington, D.C. The program aims to purchase individual allotments from willing American Indians and turn over the consolidated parcels to tribes.
Program manager John McClanahan said it could take up to a year before the first land sales are completed, but the goal is to spend most of the money before President Barack Obama's second term is up in 2017.
Land fractionation was caused by the 1887 Dawes Act, which split tribal lands into individual allotments of 80- to 160-acre parcels, in most cases. Those allotments were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation, and there are now more than 92,000 land tracts with 2.9 million fractional interests.
Of that number, more than 21,200 land tracts have 100 or more owners and many parcels have thousands of owners, according to the Interior Department.
Using or leasing those tracts requires approval of all the owners, so often they sit without being developed.
"The scope of this problem in Indian Country is amazing," said Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes. "The buyback program provides the opportunity to unlock the benefits of those lands for the tribes and their members."
McClanahan said 150 reservations are affected by this fractionation, but most are in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Ninety percent of the fractionated lands available to purchase are in 40 locations, but McClanahan said the program will explore land sales beyond those locations.
Government officials have been consulting with Indian leaders in preparation to roll out the program once the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the appeals in the Cobell settlement, which it did Nov. 24.
Besides the land buyback, the Cobell settlement will pay out $1.5 billion to two classes of beneficiaries. Each member of the first class will be paid $1,000. Each member of the second class would be paid $800 plus a share of the balance of the settlement funds as calculated by a formula based on the activity in their trust accounts.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan last week authorized the law firm Kilpatrick Townsend to issue the first round of $1,000 checks to about 350,000 beneficiaries.
Besides the cash buyouts and land buybacks, an education scholarship of up to $60 million for young Indians also will be established under the settlement. Interior Solicitor Hilary Tompkins said a portion of each land transaction will go to the scholarship fund.
Congress approved the Cobell settlement in December 2010 and Hogan approved it after a June 2011 hearing. Hogan said that while the settlement may not be as large as some wished, the deal ended the legal deadlock and provided some certainty for the beneficiaries.
Cobell died last year of cancer.
Three consultations to solicit tribal comments on the buyback program's initial framework will be held in the coming months: Jan. 31 in Minneapolis; Feb. 6 in Rapid City, S.D.; and Feb. 14 in Seattle.