Feds, Umatilla tribes reach agreement for land buyback

The federal government and the Umatilla tribes have reached an agreement to use money from a class-action settlement to buy back trust lands with many owners and consolidate ownership with the tribes.

As land is passed down through generations, it gains more owners, in some cases hundreds of individual owners, according to the U.S. Department of Interior.

Gaining consensus among owners of the land can become difficult and the land might be left idle, according to the department.

The Cobell Settlement, which resolved a claim that the federal government had mismanaged Indian landowner trust money, included $1.9 billion to buy fractional interests in trust lands across the nation and transfer them to tribal governments. Individuals owning the land must sell it voluntarily.

The land buyback is intended to remedy the results of misguided federal policy, according to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Congress passed legislation in the 1880s that transferred tribal reservation land to individual tribal members, and the Umatilla reservation served as a prototype for allotting land, according to the Umatillas.

"We lost over 130,000 acres of land once held in common for the benefit of our tribes," said Gary Burke, chairman of the Umatillas board. In addition, much of the remaining allotted lands on the Umatillas reservation are owned by Indians who are not members of the Umatilla tribes, he said.

The Umatilla tribes' Department of Economic and Community Development has identified more than 400 parcels with more than 5,000 owners and is in talks with the owners, said Bill Tovey, director of the department.

"We are well positioned to work with owners of fractionated allotments in purchasing back our lands for the common interest of our tribal members," Burke said. "We have and will continue to develop land management plans that will ensure our survival now and for future generations."