Trump administration blocks Alaska Native land trust opinion 'pending further review'

The Trump administration has moved to block an action by the Obama administration that cleared the way for some Native lands in Alaska to be taken into trust by the federal government, a means of allowing those lands to become the legal equivalent of Lower 48 reservations.

The lands would be exempt from local and state taxation and the state would not have civil jurisdiction in those areas. Alaska Native advocates of getting lands into trust have argued that avoiding local and state controls would lead to increased economic opportunities and greater tribal sovereignty.

Opponents of the idea have warned of the potential of creating a patchwork of separate sovereign entities across the state that would lead to conflicts over resources and access.

The call for a year of further review sets up a new political fight in Alaska over the administrative and legal status of some Alaska Native lands. Under the so-called "Alaska exception," Alaska Natives could not place land into trust, but the Obama administration reversed course. The Obama plan would have led to more Indian Country in Alaska, 

The Interior Department withdrew an opinion Friday that had been issued on Jan. 13, 2017, seven days before the end of the Obama administration. The opinion dealt with the authority of the Interior Department to accept land into trust under the Indian Reorganization Act, taking exception to the Alaska exception.

On Jan. 10, 2017, the Interior Department took 1.08 acres near Craig into trust, the first such action under the policy, which has a long and complicated history.

The call for delay came as part of a regulatory review by the Trump administration. Daniel Jorjani, the principal deputy solicitor, said the document from the Obama administration did not take federal laws into consideration that came into effect after the 1971 lands settlement and that the analysis was "incomplete and unbalanced."

In 1978, the government found that language in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act did not allow lands in Alaska to be taken into trust. The opinion said that the settlement should take place quickly, "without creating a reservation system or lengthy wardship or trusteeship, and without adding to the categories of property and institutions enjoying special tax privileges."

Jorjani said contradictory court rulings, along with ANCSA and other laws passed since 1971, "create a fundamentally different regime for Alaska Native tribes when compared to the tribes in the contiguous United States."

Jorjani said six months should be allowed for comment on the land-into-trust question and six additional months should be allowed for the department to review the comments.

This happened Friday, one day after Alaska Native leader Tara Sweeney was confirmed as assistant secretary of Indian Affairs by the Senate. 



Dermot ColeComment