Interior plans trust overhaul

The Interior Department unveiled a plan Dec. 4 to overhaul its trust management system that realigns functions within the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Special Trustees for American Indians.

Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Gale Norton killed her proposal to consolidate trust fund duties into a new agency -- after the move was roundly rejected by Indian communities -- and instead began working to hash out a solution with a joint Interior/tribal task force. Those discussions, however, disintegrated as both parties came to an impasse concerning standards.

The new Indian Trust Management Plan, however, "closely reflects the ideas and concepts we developed at our consultation sessions and task force meetings," McCaleb said this week in a news release. "It is a blueprint to guide the Interior Department's trust management efforts well into the future. Using the blueprint, we will be able to accentuate accountability and improve direct services to all trust beneficiaries."

The plan includes the following:

* Dedicating personnel to provide consolidated beneficiary services.

* Increasing the emphasis on tribal contracting and compacting.

* Preserving staff and monetary resources within BIA and OST.

* Improving organization accountability.

* Elevating the profile of Indian economic development.

* Grouping organizational functions more efficiently.

It also creates a deputy special trustee for trust accountability position and a trust program management center.

Since the late 1800s, Interior has been responsible for handling the fees that oil and gas companies, ranchers, farmers and other businesses pay for using some 56 million acres that American Indians received in treaties with the U.S. government. Yet the department has failed to create a financial management system that works. The inability of the agency to account for the money and subsequently to build the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System has resulted in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.

Interior must submit a revised strategy for reform to U.S. District Court by Jan. 6. The trial, which has resulted in contempt charges against Norton, McCaleb and others, resumes May 1.

McCaleb, meanwhile, announced his resignation last month, effective Dec. 31.

The joint Interior/tribal task force will reconvene in Washington, D.C., Dec. 16, according to the release.

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