By Shawn Regan
Here’s a question with a seemingly simple answer: Shouldn’t Native Americans have the same rights to develop their land, if they choose to do so, as other Americans?That question was the topic of a field hearing held by the U.S. House Natural Resource Committee last week in Santa Fe. The hearing examined how federal control of Indian lands often prevents tribes from capitalizing on their natural resources – a policy based on an outdated notion that tribes are incapable of managing their lands themselves.
Although the government pays lip service to tribal sovereignty and self-determination, Native Americans still lack the same freedoms as other Americans. It’s time for that to change.
For instance, tribes and individual Indians generally cannot own their land. Reservations are managed in trust by the federal government in a manner that Chief Justice John Marshall famously described in 1831 as resembling “that of a ward to his guardian.” As a result, nearly every aspect of Indian land use is controlled by federal agencies.
Even the most basic land-use decisions in Indian Country still require the review and approval of Washington bureaucrats.
But by all accounts, the feds have been lousy managers of Native American assets. A 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office found that poor management and bureaucratic delays by the Bureau of Indian Affairs hinders energy development on tribal lands, resulting in “missed development opportunities, lost revenue, and jeopardized viability of projects.”
The consequence is that the majority of tribal energy resources remain undeveloped, even when tribes want to develop them for the benefit of themselves and their communities. In one case, it took eight years for the BIA to review energy proposals from the Southern Ute tribe, costing the tribe $95 million in lost revenues. In another, it took 18 months for the government to review a single proposal to develop wind energy on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, causing the deal with the developer and the local utility to fall through.