Three Million Acres Returned to Tribes Through Interior’s Land Buy-Back Program

Department of the Interior

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of the Interior has announced the conclusion of the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, a decade-long effort to consolidate and return land to tribal ownership. Over the course of the program, nearly three million acres in 15 states were consolidated and restored to tribal trust ownership and $1.69 billion was paid to more than 123,000 interested individuals. Appropriated funding for the Buy-Back Program ended in November 2022, pursuant to the Settlement and Claims Resolution Act of 2010. 

As part of the program’s conclusion, the Department released a report outlining the history, best practices and lessons learned through its implementation. The report emphasizes the need to continue land consolidation efforts and identifies policies and opportunities that could be considered to complement a robust voluntary sales effort. 

“Assimilation policies not only attempted to break apart Indigenous families, devastate ecosystems and eliminate Native languages, they also worked to weaken land claims and tribal land ownership,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “The checkerboard system of land ownership on many reservations historically left communities and landowners unable to make basic decisions about their homelands. The Land Buy-Back Program’s progress puts the power back in the hands of tribal communities to determine how their lands are used – from conservation to economic development projects.”  

“Reducing fractionation and achieving tribal majority ownership provides for more efficient trust management through simplified leasing processes that uphold tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and the government-to-government relationship,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland. “Land consolidation partnerships with tribal nations benefit both landowners and tribes, including opportunities for increased agricultural operations, economic development, conservation, and cultural stewardship. The lessons learned from the Buy-Back Program will help inform our ongoing efforts to reduce fractionation.” 

As a result of the General Allotment Act of 1887, tribal reservation land was divided up and allotted to individual tribal members. After the death of the original allottee owner, title ownership was divided up among the heirs. As the land passed through each generation, the number of owners grew exponentially, resulting in the highly fractionated ownership of land today. Fractionated ownership and the checkerboard nature of land ownership patterns (i.e., trust lands, fee lands, and lands owned by tribes and individuals throughout a reservation) have caused major challenges for tribes that impact their ability to exercise tribal sovereignty and self-determination. 

The Interior Department created the Land Buy-Back Program in 2012 to carry out the land consolidation aspects of the  Cobell  v. Salazar Settlement Agreement, with the aim of consolidating fractional trust or restricted land interests through voluntary sales with individual landowners and placing purchased interests into trust for tribes. The program partnered with more than 50 tribes in 15 states. Notably, at locations where the program sent offers, fractionated tracts with 50 percent or greater tribal ownership increased by more than 100 percent, with some locations increasing tribal majority ownership by more than 1,800 percent. High offer acceptance rates at several locations demonstrated that, with tribal support and successful outreach, a well-funded willing seller approach can curb the predicted growth in fractional interests. 

Through effective program management and strong collaboration among federal government and tribal partners, $135.2 million of the $285 million originally designated for administration of the Buy-Back Program was able to instead be used to purchase an additional 100,000 fractional interests at 17 locations. As part of its implementation, the Buy-Back Program also contributed $60 million to the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund, which has awarded more than 12,000 scholarships to date.  

The announcement was made ahead of the 2023 White House Tribal Nations Summit, which will provide an opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration and tribal leaders from the 574 federally recognized tribes to discuss ways the federal government can invest in and strengthen nation-to-nation relationships as well as ensure that progress in Indian Country endures for years to come.