Quinaults to participate in $1.9 billion land buyback

The Quinault Indian Nation could soon become part of a $1.9 billion national land buyback program, in which the federal government will buy up tracts of land owned by individual tribal members and give the land back to the tribes.

The program is aimed at consolidating ownership of American Indian land held in trust by the federal government. Consolidating ownership will allow tribes to better manage the land and take advantage of resources the land provides, said Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“The program ultimately will strengthen tribal sovereignty by placing decision-making in the hands of tribal governments,” Kershaw said. “It will free up resources that have been locked up as land interests have fractionated exponentially over time.”

All reservation land owned by tribes or individual tribal members is held in trust by the federal government, dating back to treaties signed by the United States and various tribes in the 1800s. While the tribes and individual members own the land, the government holds the land title.

The United States government holds about 56.2 million acres of trust land for various tribes and tribal members, divided into about 200,000 tracts of land. And of these tracts, about 46 percent are “fractionated” — meaning they have two or more owners according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs press release.

Trust lands became fractionated as a result of the land being sold or passed between family members for generations.

The Quinault Indian Reservation contains 2,103 tracts of land held in trust, and, of these tracts, 1,421 are fractionated, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That’s about 68 percent.

Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp said she’s on board with the plan, as consolidating ownership will help alleviate “the burden of managing the broken landscape.”

“Once acquired, the land will be managed along with other Quinault Indian Nation land ownership in a sustainable manner to produce revenues for government needs, and to provide jobs and economy for the reservation and the surrounding areas and cities,” Sharp said.

She said Quinault officials are already generating a list of properties they’d like to acquire as part of the program, and a final list will be created once the tribe determines which tract owners will sell willingly.

The federal government will purchase tracts only from willing sellers at fair market value.

Kershaw said the Quinault Indian Nation wasn’t singled out as one of the tribes in the pilot program, but the bureau will soon start working with Sharp and other Quinault officials. Sharp said she expects the Quinault Indian Nation will receive about $18 million as part of the program.

“It is a priority for the Department to reduce fractionation and implement the buyback program in as fair and equitable a manner as possible,” Kershaw said. “That means collaborating with a diverse group of tribes to ensure that we are learning everything we can from an early stage and implementing lessons learned as we ramp up the program across Indian Country.”

The $1.9 billion will be distributed to tribes across the United States over a 10-year period, and is a component of the Cobell Settlement, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Elouise Cobell and a group of American Indians filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 1996, claiming that the federal government mismanaged Indian trust lands.

The suit, Cobell v. Salazar, was settled in December of 2009. A year later, President Barack Obama signed legislation approving the settlement of $3.4 billion.