Washington, D.C. - Legislation authored by Idaho Senator Mike Crapo to settle long-standing land ownership claims and water rights issues in southeastern Idaho was the focus of a U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing today. The committee, of which Crapo is a member, began consideration of S. 2040, the Blackfoot River Land Settlement Act and S. 2041, the 1918 Repeal Act, both recently introduced by the senator.
In his opening remarks, Crapo noted that the passage of the Blackfoot River Land Settlement Act would clear up issues relating to the ownership of land and water rights that date back to the 1960s when federal flood control projects were undertaken along the Blackfoot River, creating land disputes as a result of channel re-alignment.
"S. 2040…embodies the terms of a negotiated settlement between the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, non-Indian litigants and the State of Idaho relating to the ownership of land and water rights…Congress should encourage collaborative settlements like the Blackfoot River Land Settlement Act by acting swiftly on S. 2040."
Crapo also spoke on the need to push forward on a solution to end another issue of land uncertainty in the region, outlining a 1918 decision by Congress authorizing the U.S. Department of Interior to reserve a 120-acre tract of land within the Ft. Hall Reservation in Bingham County for the establishment of a local town site. This town site never came to fruition, and has since been utilized by the Tribes.
"I am pleased that the Committee will also hear testimony regarding S. 2041 [1918 Repeal Act] , which would repeal an outdated and archaic Congressional authorization…Bingham County and the Tribes [Shoshone-Bannock] currently operate under a Memorandum of Agreement…Although this cooperative agreement works well, Bingham County would like to officially absolve itself from liability concerns stemming from its ownership, and the Tribes would like to purchase the property at fair market value.
"It is my hope that this important legislation will be reported favorably out of committee during our next business meeting."
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Senator Crapo's opening statement, as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing.
I also want to express my appreciation to Chairman Small for his willingness to join us at today's hearing. The Chairman and I have been working on this legislation for the past three congresses now, and we hope this is the last time the Committee will need to hear from us on this issue.
S. 2040, the Blackfoot River Land Settlement Act, embodies the terms of a negotiated settlement between the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, non-Indian litigants and the State of Idaho relating to the ownership of land and water rights.
In an 1867 Executive Order, President Andrew Johnsonestablished the boundaries of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in Southeastern Idaho, including the reservation's northern border tracing the then-location of the Blackfoot River.
In 1964, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on behalf of the Blackfoot River Flood Control District No. 7, completed a flood control project that resulted in channel realignment of the Blackfoot River.
The resulting property holdings have tribal-owned lands north of the new river course and non-tribal lands south of the new river course, severing several contiguous land holding and creating ownership disputes.
BLM cadastral surveys dating to 1999 show 44 tribal and non-Indian parcels are affected, covering 13.49 linear miles and approximately 68 acres (37 acres to non-Indians and 31 acres to tribal members).
S. 2040 would extinguish all claims and all past, present, and future right, title, and interest in and to the tribal land and non-Indian land.
Mr. Chairman, Congress should encourage collaborative settlements like the Blackfoot River Land Settlement Act by acting swiftly on S. 2040."
In order to move S. 2040 through both the Committee and full Senate, we removed the authorization for appropriations. All affected parties, including the Tribes, north bank non-Indian landowners and the Blackfoot River Flood Control District have agreed to forgo Congressionally-directed compensation in lieu of advancing this bill.
Instead, the bill would take the lands located on the north side of the Blackfoot River into trust. The negotiated settlement would then transfer the southern tribal land to the Flood Control District, who would in turn compensate the non-Indian landowners through the sale of those lands.
As you can see, the Tribes would no longer be compensated monetarily under S. 2040. However, I am currently exploring several alternatives separate from this bill to keep the Tribes whole.
Because we've removed the score, I expect Congress to act swiftly on the legislation before us.
I am pleased that the Committee will also hear testimony regarding S. 2041, which would repeal an outdated and archaic congressional authorization.
On May 31, 1918, Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Interior to reserve a 120-acre tract of land within the Ft. Hall Reservation for the establishment of a local town site.
Although we aren't entirely sure on the congressional intent, we think this was to either provide unneeded federal oversight within the reservation, or to help the Tribes market their agriculture in a central location. Perhaps both.
Regardless, this town site never came to fruition. In 1966, Interior restored all but 4 acres, and the Tribes are seeking restitution of the remaining 111. Bingham County, which currently owns this land, fully supports this bill.
Bingham County and the Tribes currently operate under a Memorandum of Agreement in which the County does not assess property taxes and defers to the Tribes on regulatory authority and zoning issues occurring on the tract. In turn, the Tribes provide all essential government services.
Although this cooperative agreement works well, Bingham County would like to officially absolve itself from liability concerns stemming from its ownership, and the Tribes would like to purchase the property at fair market value.
It is my hope that this important legislation will be reported favorably out of committee during our next business meeting.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.