This Q&A report looks at how the Navajo Nation is using its authority to lease its lands. In 2018, Congress expanded the Navajo Nation's authority to lease its lands for certain uses like mining. Previously, these leases required Department of the Interior approval.
To use the expanded authority, the Navajo Nation must develop tribal leasing regulations. As of Sept. 2023 it hadn't done so. Tribal officials said they didn't have the staffing or funds needed to develop the regulations and manage leases. Also, for the Navajo Nation to assume responsibility for managing such leases, it needs access to Interior data that it can't easily replicate.
Map of the Navajo Nation Reservation
What GAO Found
The Navajo Nation has the authority to lease its tribal lands for certain purposes and term lengths without obtaining approval from the Department of the Interior, if it issues the leases under tribal regulations approved by Interior. Until 2018, this authority excluded leases for the exploration, development, or extraction of mineral resources. In 2018, Congress enacted the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments of 2017 (Tribal Energy Act), which expanded the Navajo Nation's authority to include leases for mineral resource purposes and extended the allowable terms for agricultural and business leases.
To assume the expanded authority, the Navajo Nation must first develop tribal regulations governing mineral leasing and providing for longer-term business and agricultural leases and then submit those regulations to Interior for approval. Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is responsible for reviewing the regulations to ensure that they meet statutory requirements, and can provide technical assistance to the Navajo Nation on request. The Tribal Energy Act does not require the Navajo Nation to assume the expanded leasing authority, and the law does not specify a deadline by which the Nation must act to take on the authority.
As of September 2023, the Navajo Nation had not developed such regulations for Interior's review or approval because of limited tribal capacity—such as limited funding and staffing—as well as concern regarding access to Interior's databases, which contain data the Nation believes it needs to manage mineral leasing, according to Navajo Nation officials. Specifically, the officials said that the various departments that would need to be involved do not have the resources to develop regulations and process and manage mineral leases. The officials noted that if the Navajo Nation takes over final approval of mineral leases from Interior, it would also have to assume responsibility for certain functions that Interior currently manages, such as ensuring compliance with applicable federal regulations. The officials said that they do not believe the Navajo Nation can easily assume some of these functions.
BIA officials agreed with Navajo Nation officials that management of certain functions associated with mineral leasing could change, if the Nation assumes the expanded authority. According to the BIA officials, as part of their review of any regulations that the Navajo Nation submits, they would determine whether the Navajo Nation has the capacity to take over these functions.
Why GAO Did This Study
The Tribal Energy Act includes a provision for GAO to review progress made in carrying out the Navajo Nation's expanded leasing authority provided for in the act. This report provides information on that progress. GAO reviewed relevant laws and documents from BIA and the Navajo Nation. GAO also met with officials from Interior and the Navajo Nation.
For more information, contact Anna Maria Ortiz at (202) 512-3841 or OrtizA@gao.gov.