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Fee-to-Trust Transfer

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Having fee simple lands transferred into federal trust status is a powerful tool for making reservations whole and protecting Indian lands for future generations. When fee lands are returned to trust, Indian nations and people begin to eliminate the checkerboard pattern of trust and fee lands and regain control of lands on the reservation.

Trust lands are protected from sale or default to non- Indians, are free from county taxation and are within tribal jurisdiction. Having lands in trust status also allows individual Indian landowners and tribes to take advantage of federal programs restricted to trust lands, such as opportunities for business development, housing, environmental and cultural protection.

Steps in the Process
Before submitting the Application for Trust Acquisition of Fee Land the tribe or landowner should take time to gather all of the required information and discuss the application with the BIA realty or tribal land office staff. It is important to make sure that the initial application is completed carefully, with special attention paid to the criteria required for the secretary of the interior to authorize a request as identified in 25 CFR 151.10. Getting advice from other tribes or individuals who have been successful with fee-to-trust applications is also a good idea. When the application is submitted to the BIA, the tribe or landowner should have a copy made that is dated, stamped and initialed by the realty staff. The realty staff will review the application and then submit it to the superintendent with a recommendation. At this point, applicants should request a copy of the recommendation and make sure everything in the application is still accurate.

Upon receipt of the application, the superintendent will notify the state and local governments who have regulatory jurisdiction over the land to be acquired. These entities have 30 days to provide written comments as to the acquisition’s potential impacts on regulatory jurisdiction, real property taxes and special assessments. The applicant is provided with a copy of these written comments and is given a “reasonable time” in which to reply and/or request that the secretary issue a decision. If everything goes smoothly, the land will be put into trust at this point. However, if the state protests, the application can go first to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA) and ultimately end up in federal court.

It is important to note that once the initial application has been submitted, applicants need to stay on top of the application’s whereabouts and status by making regular phone calls to the realty office to check in. As a general rule, one week that someone is not contacted regarding the application is equal to one extra month added on to the overall time to process the application.

What to Expect
Local and county governments will sometimes challenge fee-to-trust transfers because it could result in loss of tax revenue and jurisdiction. In some cases, Indian nations have to be prepared to educate neighboring communities about the importance and benefits of restoring Indian lands to Indian control and trust status. Some of the benefits include: economic development and jobs, new community amenities, and natural or cultural resource protection.

Individuals seeking to have fee lands transferred to trust status can also encounter resistance either from the tribe, the BIA or other entities. In general, the BIA gives priority to tribal over individual fee-to-trust transfers. Attitudes toward individual fee-to-trust transfers can vary dramatically from one region or agency to the next, and, these attitudes can influence the process itself. Landowners should fully understand their rights and responsibilities regarding fee-to-trust transfers and be prepared to advocate for their position every step of the way.

Length of Time
Generally, the fee-to-trust process takes anywhere from 12 to 18 months. Occasionally a transfer will take less time, eight or nine months, but this is rare, and is usually due to extreme persistence on the part of the tribe or individual landowner who has submitted the request. A request may also take much longer if the case is complicated by any number of factors. Diligence and persistent follow-up are important.