In late February, officials with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes peppered Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh with a host of questions ranging from forestry management to veterans’ issues to language preservation. Among the topics mentioned was the Land Buy-Back Program established to address fractionated land consolidation provisions in the historic Cobell Settlement. Tribal leaders pressed Tester, asking if he could help bend the ear of Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell about a visit to the Flathead Indian Reservation.
A month earlier, CSKT had been among the first tribes in the nation to reach a cooperative agreement with the Department of the Interior regarding local implementation of the $1.9 billion buy-back program. Tester—then the newly minted chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee—explained the secretary was being pulled in a lot of different directions. He made no promises, but said he’d do what he could to pass along the message.
Yet Tester doesn’t take credit for Jewell’s jaunt to CSKT last week. “This is mostly her doing,” he says, referring to a visit that included a stop at Kerr Dam, which the tribes are poised to take ownership of, as well as an Aug. 20 luncheon discussion about the buy-back program. Tester adds that of the 18 reservations Jewell has visited nationwide, three are in Montana. In addition to CSKT, she has been to the Crow Indian Reservation and the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, both of which reached cooperative buy-back program agreements with DOI this summer.
“She knows that [CSKT] is a reputable tribe that does pretty good work, so I think that was her driver to get out here,” Tester says. “She is here because she values the Salish and Kootenai’s perspective and thinks that it can help with other tribes’ buy-back programs.”
Jewell, who is the first Interior secretary to visit the Flathead reservation, praised the tribes as “pioneers” in Indian Country, calling CSKT a model for “strong tribal government, strong tribal leadership.” She also announced that the first round of offers from the buy-back program would be going out the first week of September, at which point individuals with fractionated interests will have 45 days to accept.
So far the program nationally has concluded transactions worth almost $91 million and consolidated roughly 250,000 acres of land. And while Jewell and Tester both acknowledged that the process has been lengthy, Jewell emphasized the need for cooperative relationships in making the program a success.
“This tribal coordination is very, very important in actually making sure that these deals get across the finish line,” she said.