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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented
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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