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Feds streamline rules, hope to ease development on tribal lands

Among other changes, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said the new lease-approval rules for tribal lands mean families "will no longer have to wait years for federal government approval of a simple mortgage application, for example." (Cronkite News Service photo by Maryann Batlle)

WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department unveiled a streamlined process Tuesday for approving leases on tribal lands that federal officials hope will spur development by replacing outdated and unresponsive 50-year-old regulations.

Key among the changes is a requirement that the Bureau of Indian Affairs respond to a lease application within 30 days for a proposed home and within 60 days for a proposed business. Currently, there is no deadline for the agency to act.

"It's hard to overstate what these reforms will mean for Indian Country," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a Tuesday conference call during which the changes were unveiled.

"Under the new expedited process, getting approved for a home will no longer be an unnecessarily arduous process," Salazar said. "Getting the lease for a business will take a matter of weeks, not years."

Salazar said the bureau would no longer have the ability to stall an application by failing to act: If no decision is made within the allotted timeframe, the lease application will be automatically approved from now on.

"This is part of our efforts to bring regulatory certainty to business and economic development to Indian Country," he said.

The old regulations, which had been in place since 1955, did not include a deadline for the bureau to make leasing decisions, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said. The agency could theoretically have let an application languish forever.

"Families will no longer have to wait years for federal government approval of a simple mortgage application, for example," Washburn said during the conference call.

The department said other changes under the new rules include limiting the reasons for which a lease application can be rejected, allowing for subleases and other arrangements, exempting some temporary activities from bureau oversight and loosening requirements for appraisals and bonding, among other moves.

The regulations will not officially take effect for 30 days after they are published in the Federal Register.

The purpose of these changes is not only to streamline leases for residential and commercial locations, but also to help quicken the process to start renewable energy projects, the department said.

In a statement released late Tuesday, the National Indian American Housing Council said land-leasing reform had been a major priority since the beginning of the Obama administration and it hailed the changes.

"The new regulations will further support and expand tribal self-determination by minimizing the Bureau of Indian Affair's role and enhancing the tribes' role in the leasing of tribal land," said council Chairwoman Cheryl Causley in the prepared statment. "This is a true exercise of self-determination that respects and fosters Indian tribal decision-making and expedites what can often be a lengthy federal administrative process."

The statement went on to say that the changes present tribes with an opportunity to "consider using land leasing reform as means for enhanced economic growth" in the current challenging economic climate.

The changes will apply to the roughly 56 million acres of American Indian trust land across the country that is managed by the Department of the Interior.

The Navajo Nation - which covers 16 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah - does not have a position on the new rules, said a spokesman in the tribe's Washington, D.C., office.

Calls to other tribal offices in Arizona and to other agencies dealing with tribes were not immediately returned Tuesday.

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