Two more Alaska tribes apply to put land into trust with BIA
Two more tribes are asking the federal government to put land into trust, including one that seeks to remove a 2.5-acre parcel from the Kenai Peninsula Borough's property tax rolls as the tribe prepares to launch commercial transit service.
Tribal organizations in Ninilchik and Fort Yukon made separate requests to put land into trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the state said Friday. The state is seeking public comments on potential impacts from the proposals, said Cori Mills, an assistant attorney general for Alaska.
The applications are part of a growing number of requests that began in 2016 after the federal courts and the U.S. Interior Department under President Barack Obama removed a longstanding ban against Alaska tribes putting land into trust.
The change has caused concerns among some Alaskans who fear it would create a new system of reservations here, while others have reacted with joy over the opportunities for tribal rights. Land under trust would be managed by the federal government for the benefit of the tribe, and could be the starting point for establishing territory-based courts and law enforcement.
"People have a whole range of opinions on this subject," Mills said. "I think we're still figuring out what this world looks like, but from the administration's standpoint, we don't think the sky is falling."
So far, the federal government has approved only one application, in January, allowing the Craig Tribal Association to put an acre into trust. The lot contained tribal facilities, commercial space and a parking area on property that was not taxed anyway by the city of Craig.
In April, the BIA announced it had received three applications made by the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. The tribe said it wanted to take into trust a fifth of an acre currently used for parking in downtown Juneau. The land is not taxed by the City and Borough of Juneau because of the tribe's governmental status, the BIA said. That comment period has closed.
The BIA has about eight pending land-into-trust applications, said Nedra Darling, spokeswoman with BIA.
Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he believes the federal government's decision removing the ban was wrong. He said it opposes what Congress intended in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
He said he'll be scrutinizing the new applications closely.
The federal government owns about 60 percent of Alaska and this puts oversight of more land into the government's hands, taking control from Alaska Natives and locking in the land's use for generations, he said.
The loss of property taxes to local governments is another potential problem that could grow if lots of property is removed from tax rolls, he said.
Long-term protection for the land is one benefit the Ninilchik Village Tribe is seeking, said Ivan Encelewski, the tribe's executive director.
The tribe wants 2.5 acres along Oil Well Road in Ninilchik placed into trust.
With support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe has built a transit facility there, Encelewski said. In the coming weeks, the tribe plans to launch commercial bus service from the site, providing trips to nearby communities such as Kenai and Homer.
If its application is approved, the tribe will still own the land. But putting it into trust will ensure the land can't one day be sold by future generations, he said.
In 2017, the tribe paid the borough $2,872 in property taxes, the BIA said in an Aug. 31 notice. Not paying taxes is a matter of "principle" to the federally recognized tribe, he said. One sovereign government — the legal situation of a tribal government — should not have to pay taxes to another government, he said.
He said the proposal is narrowly tailored to minimize the impact if the application is approved, and the amount of taxes the borough would lose is small.
The Native Village of Fort Yukon wants to put about 2 acres of connected lots into trust in the city of Fort Yukon, the state said. The lots contain the tribal government building and the Chief Ezias Loola Cultural Center.
There is no local taxing authority in Fort Yukon, the state said.
The state isn't worried the land-into-trust will become a large problem, Mills said. The applications for land-into-trust have covered small areas, she said.
"We are taking the notices as they come and evaluating each one," she said.
The state said comments must be received by Sept. 22, so they can be submitted to the BIA in time. They can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.