BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — U.S. officials on Tuesday added 63 American Indian reservations to an initiative that seeks to return millions of acres of reservation land to the control of tribes and warned that the $1.9 billion program is running out of money.
Reservations in 16 states in the West and Midwest are joining the Interior Department's "Land Buyback Program."
The Associated Press obtained details in advance of a planned public announcement.
The move comes as the $1.9 billion Interior Department program to return up to 3 million acres of land to tribes is set to expire in 2022.
The program is the result of a legal settlement with American Indians led by Elouise Cobell of Montana, who said the U.S. mismanaged trust money held on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Indians.
Since 2013, the buyback program has paid $742 million to restore 1.5 million acres to tribal control. It has targeted land with "fractionated" interests — meaning it has multiple owners — and then consolidated ownership under tribal governments.
An 1887 law, the Dawes Act, split tribal lands into individual allotments that were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation.
As a result, parcels of land on some reservations are owned by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individual Indians. That can make property all but impossible to sell or develop.
There are nearly 3 million fractional land interests owned by 245,000 people spread over 150 reservations that are eligible for the program.
Interior Deputy Secretary Michael Connor said in a Tuesday statement that time limits and the money available from the Cobell settlement "do not provide enough to consolidate all fractional interests across Indian Country."
Connor has been told by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to craft options by early July for extending the life of the program.
That could include bumping back the expiration date, adding more money or some combination of the two, said Interior spokeswoman Treci Johnson.
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