Organizing Principles

There are five overarching principles that guide the design and implementation of the Buy-Back Program, and they are described below.

1. Utilize the $1.9 billion for Land Consolidation within 10 Years

The Cobell Settlement Agreement (Cobell Settlement or Settlement) established a $1.9 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund (Fund) available to the U.S. Department of the Interior (Department) for the purchase of fractional interests in trust or restricted lands from willing sellers at fair market value. The Settlement limits the amount of money the Department may use for costs associated with the various phases of implementing the Buy-Back Program. By law, no more than 15 percent ($285 million) of the Fund may be used for implementation costs in order to maximize the amount available for purchasing fractional interests. The Fund may be used to acquire fractional interests, implement land consolidation activities, and pay the costs related to the work of the Secretarial Commission on Trust Reform.

Additionally, in accordance with the Settlement, the Buy-Back Program contributed $60 million of the Fund to the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund (Scholarship Fund).

The Fund’s various components

Acquiring Fractional Interests (minimum available for land purchases) $1,555,000,000
Implementation Costs (not to exceed 15 percent) $285,000,000
Scholarship Fund (maximum available, depending on interests sold) $60,000,000
Total $1,900,000,000

The Cobell Settlement also requires the Fund be spent during a period of no more than 10 years, which started on November 24, 2012. Accordingly, the Program must be cost efficient and act quickly when administering the Fund.

2. Purchase Fractional Interests in Trust and Restricted Lands

In 2012, the Department identified approximately 3.0 million fractional interests across approximately 150 locations that may be eligible for the Buy-Back Program. These fractional interests are owned by nearly 243,000 owners. 

All interests purchased by the Buy-Back Program are held in trust for the recognized Tribe (or Tribes) that exercise jurisdiction over the lands. There are several categories of land:

  • Trust land is a land ownership status in which title is held in trust by the Federal Government with restrictions on use and disposition of the land. Trust land is eligible for Buy-Back Program purchases.
  • Restricted fee land is a land ownership status in which an individual or Tribe holds title, but there are restrictions on use and/or disposition of the land. Additional analysis and reviews are required for Buy-Back Program offers on restricted fee land.
  • Fee simple (fee land) is a land ownership status in which an individual or Tribe holds title to the property. The Buy-Back Program does not purchase fee land.

3. Maximize Program Potential to Consolidate Land

The Buy-Back Program is scheduled to end in November 2022. As the Program completes implementation at each location the remaining land purchase funds decrease. The Buy-Back Program has primarily focused on acquisitions that best address fractionation. The Program aims to use the Fund thoughtfully and fairly, on cost-effective acquisitions, in order to fully expend the Fund while having the maximum impact.

In January 2020, the Program announced the addition of five locations to its implementation schedule, as well as operational changes to those locations. The adjustments reflect the Program's aim to maximize its impact by increasing flexibility as the Program operates with the remaining funding and time limits established for the Program. Individuals who own fractional interests at the five locations should be aware that the Program's acceptance of returned offer packages will be contingent on the availability of funding, the Program will require additional time to process returned offer packages while it determines the availability of funding. The Program is returning to its original offer period length, meaning landowners will have 45 days from the date of the cover letter in the offer package to choose to sell and return their offer package, and will remain flexible and may extend the deadline if circumstances warrant. 

4. Enable Landowners to Make Informed Decisions

The Program is a willing seller program, meaning each individual landowner who receives an offer can choose to sell or not sell his or her interests. The fundamental goal of Program outreach to individuals is to share information and to answer questions to facilitate informed decisionmaking.

5. Partner with Tribes

Active participation of Tribes is a crucial component of Program implementation. The Program works with Tribes to expand outreach efforts to increase landowner awareness. The involvement of Tribes in explaining what land consolidation means on their reservations is key. Tribes also play a role in the identification of priority tracts, which may inform the Program’s mapping and appraisal efforts. 

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