On December 4, 2023, the Department of the Interior announced the conclusion of the Land Buy-Back Program (“Program”) for Tribal Nations. The Program was established in December 2012 as a part of the Cobell v. Salazar Settlement Agreement, which provided a $1.9 billion land consolidation fund to purchase fractional trust or restricted land interests to be put into trust for Tribes. Throughout the 10-year Program, tribes were actively involved in its strategy and implementation.
The Program was developed to help undo some of the impacts of the General Allotment Act of 1887. The Act and a number of individual allotment acts divided up Tribal lands among individual tribal members. After allotment, as the land passed through generations, ownership of the land became fractionated, with some tracts of land having hundreds of individual owners. In addition, allotment “checkerboarded” many Indian reservations. A final report on the Program is available here.
Fractionated ownership and checkerboarding posed many challenges for individual and tribal land management and economic development. The Program aimed to address these issues by strategically coordinating individual sales of land and interests in land to consolidate land ownership and return those lands to tribal ownership.
In total, nearly 3 million acres of land were consolidated and restored to tribal trust ownership through the Program. Although the Program had a significant impact, the funding available was not enough to buy all fractional interests. Further efforts and additional funding from Congress will be necessary to fully resolve the issue in Indian Country.
The Program also contributed $60 million to the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund by making a contribution for each interest in land purchased. These scholarships provide financial assistance to American Indian and Alaska Native students pursuing vocational, post-secondary, and graduate education and training. So far more than 12,250 scholarships have been provided to over 4,100 individuals affiliated with 252 tribes, attending 742 institutions worldwide.
Patterson Earnhart Real Bird & Wilson LLP is dedicated to the representation of American Indian tribes, tribal entities, and individual Indians across the United States. Our mission is to support and advance the sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and self-governance of our tribal clients.
To learn more about how we can assist your tribe, contact our Colorado office at 303-926-5292.