PABLO – The offers are in the mail, and many are already in hand.
Almost 2,100 landowners on the Flathead Indian Reservation have or will receive offers totaling $8.3 million to purchase fractionalized interests of land long held in trust for individual members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
It’s part of the Department of Interior’s Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, a component of the Cobell settlement.
The program provides $1.9 billion to purchase fractional interests in trust or restricted land from willing sellers at fair-market value, within a 10-year period on 150 reservations across the country. Any land purchased is put back in trust for the tribes as a whole.
Offers for land on the Flathead Reservation were mailed Friday. Landowners have until Oct. 24 to return accepted offers.
Fee land is not eligible.
Fractionalized ownership of lands came about because federal policy dictated that land initially allotted to Indians go directly to their heirs when the original owner died. As the heirs died, their heirs inherited even smaller interests in the property.
“Over time, it got broken up so badly that it’s not manageable,” said Carolee Wenderoth of CSKT’s Land Title Records Office. “For any owner to do anything with the land, a majority of the other owners have to agree.”
That’s not realistic when a 5-acre tract now has as many as 200 co-owners, which is the case with at least one piece of property on the Flathead Reservation where the owners received buyback offers, according to Wenderoth.
The federal policy did not allow land to be subdivided among heirs. As Wenderoth explained, if the original owner had 10 acres and five children, the children didn’t each inherit 2 acres, they inherited 20 percent interest in all 10 acres. As they died, their interest was divided among their heirs.
So if one of the first heirs had two children, each child received 10 percent interest. If another had 10 children, they each inherited 2 percent. It doesn’t take too many generations for ownership of a parcel to become a muddled mess and the land to become unused.
While the average offer works out to approximately $3,950 – that’s $8.3 million divided by 2,100 – it’s by no means typical.
Some of the trust land offers were located on Flathead Lake, and are among the most valuable property on the reservation.
At the other end of the spectrum, Wenderoth said she saw one offer where the fair-market appraised value was for 52 cents.
“That’s because the land was so fractionalized, and they only own mineral rights,” she said.
To make it more worth an owner’s time to sell and return their interest to their tribe or tribes, all offers include a base payment of $75. Native Americans across the country can thank the CSKT Tribal Council for that, according to Wenderoth.
“Our council foresaw the problem, raised the issue and fought for that,” she says.
If the offer was only for 52 cents, “it’s not worth the drive to get the papers notarized,” Wenderoth said. But if it’s for $75.52 – in this case for a tiny interest in mineral rights on a property an individual will probably never realize anything out of otherwise – “It’s a small incentive to make the transaction happen,” she said.
If the tribes gain controlling interest in fractionalized land, “it takes a parcel of land that is inactive and unproductive, and it can be made productive and manageable,” Wenderoth explained.
“If we get ownership in the tribes’ name, it stops the cycle of fractionating any further,” she added.
The buyback offers have gone out to all types of properties, Wenderoth said, including lake lots, agricultural land and vacant lots inside municipalities.
Nationally, the Buy-Back Program has already concluded transactions of almost $103 million and restored nearly 265,000 acres of land to tribal governments.
The offers on the Flathead Reservation kick off several weeks of additional offers to landowners on the Umatilla, Coeur d’Alene, Lake Traverse and Crow Indian reservations.
Reducing fractionated lands benefits Indian Country, Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor said in announcing the mailing of offers on the Flathead Reservation.
“We are committed to making sure that individuals are aware of this historic opportunity to strengthen tribal sovereignty by supporting the consolidation of Indian lands,” Connor said.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the Flathead Reservation last month in advance of offers being mailed out.
Possible offers on other fractionated lands on the reservation will depend on additional resources and how many offers are accepted this time around, according to CSKT officials.
Landowners who have received purchase offers can contact the Trust Beneficiary Call Center at 1-888-678-6836 with questions.
A decision to sell land for restoration to tribes does not impact a landowner’s eligibility to receive individual settlement payments from the Cobell settlement.