Indian Issues:

BIA's Efforts to Impose Time Frames and Collect Better Data Should Improve the Processing of Land in Trust Applications

GAO-06-781: Published: Jul 28, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 2006.

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In 1980, the Department of the Interior (Interior) established regulations to provide a uniform approach for taking land in trust. Trust status means the government holds title to the land in trust for tribes and individual Indians. Trust land is exempt from state and local taxes. The Secretary of the Interior has delegated primary responsibility for processing, reviewing, and deciding on applications to take land in trust to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). As part of this process, BIA must seek comments from affected state and local governments. Congress directed GAO to study BIA's processing of land in trust applications to determine the extent to which (1) BIA followed its regulations, (2) applications were processed in a timely manner, and to (3) identify any concerns raised by state and local governments about land in trust applications. GAO is also providing information on problems with BIA's data on the processing of land in trust applications.

BIA generally followed its regulations for processing land in trust applications, although most of the criteria in the regulations are not specific and thus do not offer clear guidance for how BIA should apply them. For example, there are no guidelines on how to weigh the impact of lost tax revenues on local governments. As a result, the BIA decision maker has wide discretion. Generally, all of the 87 applications with decisions in fiscal year 2005 were approved, except for 1 denial and 6 that were closed because the applications were incomplete. BIA is considering revisions to the regulations that would clarify that applications will generally be approved unless there is clear evidence of significant negative impacts. These revisions would make BIA's decision-making process more transparent. Currently, BIA has no deadlines for making decisions on land in trust applications, but BIA is considering imposing about a 6-month time frame. In addition, there is also a 60-day time frame for BIA regional directors to rule on appeals. Based on these time frames, it appears that many land in trust applications have not been processed in a timely manner. First, the median processing time for the 87 applications with decisions in fiscal year 2005 was 1.2 years--ranging from 58 days to almost 19 years. Second, 28 complete off-reservation applications had been waiting an average of 1.4 years for a decision as of September 30, 2005. Third, 34 appeals had been waiting an average of about 3 years for resolution by a BIA regional director as of September 30, 2005. When opposing land in trust applications or appealing decisions, state and local governments principally cited concerns about lost tax revenues and jurisdictional issues. In commenting on applications prior to decisions made in fiscal year 2005, state and local governments opposed 12 of 87 applications, or about 14 percent. Also, as of September 30, 2005, 45 decisions were on administrative appeal to either a BIA regional director or Interior's Board of Indian Appeals, including 5 appealed decisions from fiscal year 2005. Although GAO found little opposition to applications with decisions in fiscal year 2005, some state and local governments we contacted said (1) they did not have access to sufficient information about the land in trust applications and (2) the 30-day comment period was not sufficient time in which to comment. GAO found the data in BIA's land in trust database, which was implemented in August 2004, were frequently incomplete and inaccurate. The database was hastily developed without defining user requirements and data fields. Specifically, (1) not all of the applications had been entered into the database and (2) the status of an application, as either approved or denied, was frequently incorrect. A properly designed and implemented database with accurate data would provide BIA with important information to help better manage the land in trust process. BIA has already recognized the shortcomings and initiated an effort to redesign the database as necessary.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve timeliness and transparency and ensure better management of BIA's land in trust process, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs to reinforce the requirement that all decisions be fully documented.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our July 2006 report on the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) processing of land in trust applications, we found that one BIA office had not properly documented its decisions. BIA policy calls for offices to include an analysis of each of the eight criteria in the land in trust regulations (25 C.F.R. Part 151) in their decision letter for approving or denying applications. To improve the timeliness and transparency and ensure better management of BIA's land in trust process, we recommended that the Secretary of the Interior direct the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs to reinforce that all decisions be fully documented. In general, BIA agreed with the findings, conclusions, and recommendations in the report. Based on our finding and recommendation, BIA has taken action to implement our recommendation. Specifically, BIA reinforced the requirement that all decisions on land in trust applications be fully documented when it released a new land in trust handbook in May 2008. Furthermore, BIA employees were reminded of the need to fully document decisions on land in trust applications at the 2008 National Trust Conference, according to BIA.

    Recommendation: To improve timeliness and transparency and ensure better management of BIA's land in trust process, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs to move forward with adopting revisions to the land in trust regulations that include (1) specific time frames for BIA to make a decision once an application is complete and (2) guidelines for providing state and local governments more information on the applications and a longer period of time to provide meaningful comments on the applications.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our July 2006 report on the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) processing of land in trust applications, we found that one BIA's land in trust regulations (25 C.F.R. Part 151) do not provide a time frame for BIA's review of land in trust applications. While we found that some land in trust applications with decisions in fiscal year 2005 were decided in a timely manner, others took an exceedingly long time. To improve the timeliness and transparency and ensure better management of BIA's land in trust process, we recommended that the Secretary of the Interior direct the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs to move forward with adopting specific time frames for BIA to make a decision once an application is complete. In general, BIA agreed with the findings, conclusions, and recommendations in the report. Based on our finding and recommendation, BIA has taken action to implement our recommendation, in part. Specifically, in June 2010, BIA issued a new chapter to the Indian Affairs Manual that establishes time frames for processing land in trust applications. For example, if an application is complete and there are no expired or missing documents, the manual requires that BIA staff will take the necessary action to assure that a Notice of Decision is issued as soon as possible, but no later than 15 days from the date of receipt of final document(s) required to issue the Notice of Decision.

    Recommendation: To improve timeliness and transparency and ensure better management of BIA's land in trust process, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs to institute internal controls to help ensure the accuracy and reliability of the data in the land in trust database, as part of the redesign of the existing system.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our July 2006 report on the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) processing of land in trust applications, we found that one BIA land in trust database was incomplete and inaccurate. Furthermore, we reported that BIA was planning to redesign their land in trust database. To improve the timeliness and transparency and ensure better management of BIA's land in trust process, we recommended that the Secretary of the Interior direct the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs to institute internal controls to help ensure that accuracy and reliability of the data in the land in trust database, as part of the redesign of the existing system. In general, BIA agreed with the findings, conclusions, and recommendations in the report. Based on our finding and recommendation, BIA has taken action to implement our recommendation. Specifically, Office of the Chief Information Office has indicated that general and application controls were included in the redesign process to improve the accuracy and reliability of the data.

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