Tester pledges action on Land Buy-Back Program

Senator hears Montana Indian leaders’ concerns over land purchase delays

(U.S. SENATE) – Senator Jon Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, today pledged to push U.S. Interior Department officials to work with members of Indian Country to move forward with the department’s Land Buy-Back Program.

The Land Buy-Back Program stems from the historic Cobell Settlement, which provides funding for the Interior Department to purchase trust lands from individual Indians who are willing sellers and transfer them to tribal ownership. This process would help consolidate millions of divided interests in tribal lands and enable tribes to have greater control of their lands.

The initiative intends to improve tribal economic development, but the department has not made any purchases since it received authority in November 2012.

At a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, Tester heard testimony on the issue from Montana tribal leaders Alvin Not Afraid (Crow) and Grant Stafne (Fort Peck). Before the hearing, Tester met with Not Afraid, Woodrow PlainFeather (Crow) and Loren “Bum” Stiffarm (Fort Belknap). Six of Montana’s seven reservations are eligible for the Buy-Back Program.

“Montana tribes have waited more than a decade to reclaim their lands, and we now have a plan in place to give landowners fair compensation and spur new development,” Tester said. “But the clock is ticking. We can’t let a lack of transparency and unneeded delays stand in the way of progress in Indian Country.”

The Cobell Settlement gives the Interior Department ten years to complete the Land Buy-Back Program. Senator Max Baucus joined Tester in helping finalize a settlement in the decades-old Cobell v. Salazar class-action lawsuit, brought by Blackfeet Tribal member Elouise Cobell against the U.S. government for mismanagement of Indian trust accounts.

Tester is a long-time advocate for Montana’s tribes, bringing Indian Affairs Chairman Maria Cantwell to Montana in September and recently backing legislation to improve the quality of life for Native American children.