Landowners on Reservations Get Government Buyback Offers

The buyback program emerged from a $3.4 billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell of Browning

By Dillon Tabish

BILLINGS — The U.S. government has made offers worth more than $230 million combined to buy fractionated parcels of land on two Montana American Indian reservations and turn them over to tribal governments, Department of Interior officials said.

The offers involving almost 12,000 landowners on the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations are part of a nationwide program that aims to buy land parcels owned by multiple individuals so they can be put to beneficial use.

Interior officials said Monday they had expanded the effort to include properties with buildings, homes and other structures, although only the underlying land would be eligible for purchase.

The program has paid nearly $460 million to landowners since 2013 and restored more than 750,000 acres to tribal governments, the agency said.

Fort Peck landowners have until July 18 to accept the offers. Fort Belknap landowners have until July 30.

The buyback program emerged from a $3.4 billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell of Browning. Cobell claimed Interior Department officials mismanaged trust money held by the government for hundreds of thousands of Indian landowners. She died in 2011.

An 1887 law, the Dawes Act, split tribal lands into individual allotments that were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation. As a result, parcels of land on some reservations are owned by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individual Indians. That can make property all but impossible to sell or develop.

The buyback program aims to buy land with “fractionated” interests and consolidate ownership of the parcels under tribal governments.

There are nearly 3 million fractional land interests owned by 250,000 people spread over 150 reservations that are eligible for the program. The government also has offers pending with landowners on Oregon’s Umatilla reservation and South Dakota’s Cheyenne River reservation. The deadline for offers on the Prairie Band Potawatomi reservation in Kansas was Monday.

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