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Progress Achieved In Indian Trust Asset Reform

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

Indian tribes across the country have been working for well over a decade to achieve much needed reforms to policies governing the management and use of their non-monetary assets held in trust by the federal government.  Tribal leaders know best the needs of their communities and members and a recently enacted law will grant them greater autonomy to use their own tribal assets to pursue needed economic development, employment and conservation opportunities. 

For too long, federal policies have been overly paternalistic and burdensome, which has limited opportunities for native peoples.  Under the current system, non-monetary tribal assets, such as land, forest resources and energy holdings, held in trust by the federal government require extensive bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome before a tribe may utilize those assets for the benefit of its members.  This is not in touch with the federal government's policy of promoting greater tribal self-reliance.       

Last year, as a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I introduced S. 383, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act.  My Idaho colleague, Senator Jim Risch, joined me as an original co-sponsor of the legislation.  The bill allows tribes to manage their assets on a voluntary basis through long-term demonstration projects approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior.  Through these projects, tribes, not the federal government, would be the leaders on management decisions involving tribal assets.  The legislation provides flexibility for tribes to pursue long-term economic development opportunities and reduces the need for repeated government approvals. 

Identical companion legislation, H.R. 812, was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Idaho Representative Mike Simpson and co-sponsored by Idaho Representative Raul Labrador and a coalition of bipartisan members.  The House acted on its bill first, sending H.R. 812 to the Senate on February 24, 2016.  I ushered the bill through the Senate, which unanimously approved it on June 10, 2016.  On Wednesday, June 22, 2016, the President signed the legislation into law.  Representative Simpson's leadership was instrumental in the enactment of this legislation, and I am proud of the work of the Idaho Congressional Delegation and others to achieve this needed policy change.

The flexibility and certainty provided by the new law is expected to promote economic development and opportunity in tribal and neighboring communities.  For example, many tribes in Idaho and the northwest have timber resources held in trust, but presently, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is the final decision maker on how those assets may be used.  Should these tribes choose to participate in the demonstration project established in the new law, they would submit a ten-year plan outlining how they would like to manage and use those timber resources.  The plan could include a variety of management scenarios for economic or conservation purposes.  Through the enactment of this new law tribes will only have to receive one approval on long-term asset management plans rather than being subjected to multiple, time-consuming approvals by the federal government for transactions involving trust assets.

In fulfilling the federal government's trust responsibility with Indian Country, we must enact policies that better enable tribes to make important advancements.  This law is a positive step forward in trust asset reform and strikes a balance between delegating more autonomy to Indian tribes, for those voluntarily seeking it, while retaining a degree of oversight by the federal government.

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