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County to meet with tribes

by Alan Lewis Gerstenecker
| July 30, 2013 10:16 AM

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Fee to Trust Two

Lincoln County Commissioner Ron Downey is concerned the desire to turn a tract of land owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes into a land trust is part of a larger plan.

“We don’t know what their intentions are,” said Downey, whose district includes the 13.36-acre tract west of Kootenai Falls owned by the tribes. “We don’t know why they want this land so far off-reservation. The falls belong to the county.”

Downey and commissioners Tony Berget and Mike Cole will seek answers when they travel to Polson to meet with the tribes Aug. 5.

“We do hope to get some answers,” Downey said.

The tribes, who say the Kootenai Falls are sacred, seek to put the land they already own into a land trust, which would take it off the county tax roll. However, tribal officials say there is no ploy, just people wanting to acquire land that is special to them.

“The effort of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to restore land to protected trust status is not the work of a land-hungry nation,” said Teresa Wall-McDonald, the department head of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Trives Lands Department. “Nor is it a ‘land grab’ effort as some would like to characterize it. The CSKT are restoring our homeland, including off-reservation religious sites, which are in the tribes aboriginal area.”

Still, Downey said the move will take the land off county tax roll a fact affecting an already tax-strapped county.

 “That’s the other thing. If it goes into a trust, we’re losing the tax money,” Downey said of the $825 that would come off the county tax roll. “They say it’s sacred land. That land is sacred to the residents of Lincoln County, too,.”

The land was purchased by the tribes in 1989 from then-owner Lee McDonald. The land deal took place but it wasn’t until recently the tribes sought to put it into a trust.

Commissioners have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., appealing the decision to move the land into a trust. The tract of land is located west of the Swinging Bridge at the Kootenai Falls site on both sides of U.S. Highway 2. Because of railroad and power-line easements, the 13-plus-acre tract results in 8.3 acres.

In the letter dated earlier this month, commissioners stated that lands may be put into a trust only when such an acquisition is authorized by Congress. “No information regarding any particular act of Congress was provided in the above-referenced letter,” commissioners wrote. The letter also states the county requests that the information be provided, and it reserves the right to further comment.

In the letter, commissioners also requested information on what the tribes intend to do with the land and noted their opposition to removing the property from the tax rolls.

The letter is the most recent correspondence the commissioners have had initially with the tribes, then the Bureau of Indian Affairs and now the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“It just seems like we get nowhere,” Berget said.

Although the land was purchased by the tribes about 24 years ago, the property came to the forefront again when the county last year attempted to make the visitors area at Kootenai Falls pay for itself and leased a small portion of the site for the purpose of a concession stand.

Downey said the lease agreement has been beneficial.

“We got (electricity) at the site, and the restrooms are much better than they ever were,” Downey said. “All we were trying to do was make the site pay for itself.”

It was that endeavor, Downey said, that drew the attention of Loretta Stevens, the tribe’s cultural preservation official, who has an office at the Kootenai National Forest Supervisor’s Office.

“The falls are sacred to us,” said Stevens, who admitted to having a difference of opinion with Downey on whether there should be a concession at the falls. “I don’t know if there is anything (more) I can say about this.”

Downey admits he is concerned the site will enable the tribes to acquire more land, possibly closer to the falls.

“I do fear that,” Downey said. “While we’re told it will remain in its current state, they’re not really saying what their plans are, and that does concern us. I didn’t feel any better about this after talking to (Stevens).”

Helena Attorney Allan Payne said he is unaware of any action by the tribes to expand their land acquisition at Kootenai Falls. Howecer, he said stranger things have happened.

“There are any number of ways,” Payne said. “One would be to have the land condemned.”

Payne has concerns the federal government would employ such a tactic to help the tribes acquire more land, as it could be open for criticism.

“The land is sacred to the tribes, we understand that,” Payne said. “But what if the federal government wanted to help Catholics acquire that land? Would that be any different? We can see a huge problem with keeping government and religion separate.”

Ravalli County Commissioner Ron Stoltz said that county also is dealing with the tribes on a land issue. Stoltz said the tribes have delayed road improvements on U.S. Highway 93 because of an easement on tribal land.

“This probably has been going on 20 years,” Stoltz.

Stoltz attributes the recent seeking of land trusts to the tribes’ water-rights issues.

“We’re kind of thinking this goes back to the water rights,” he said. “We know they’re unhappy with water rights, and we can see that. We just haven’t figured out their angle on the land trusts.”

Stoltz specifically mentioned in Ravalli County the tribes sought water rights to 31 cubic feet per second flow on Blogett Creek, which is implausible 12 months of the year.

“Thirty-one CFS is only capable, maybe, four months a year,” he said. “To ask for that kind of water would be impossible.”

Stoltz said the overzealous water-rights request is meant to stymie future development in the area.

It is Wall-McDonald’s assertion there is nothing more to this trust than the tribes seeking land ownership.

Native American websites contend it’s a misnomer that all reservation land is owned by a tribe.

Stevens called the wish for off-reservation land is just to acquire sacred land, nothing more.

According to the pro-Native American website indianz.com, land trusts allow the holder to have the legal title to the property held by another person, the trustee, while retaining all of the rights and privileges of property ownership as the beneficiary (the beneficial interest).

The trustee acts only upon the beneficiaries’ direction. The original property owner still retains all rights, such as the right to possession, to collect rent, mortgage the property, homestead exemption, tax benefits and any other benefit they currently possess.

Also, a land held in a trust avoids probates and saves taxes. Property held in a land trust can be designated for transfer of ownership whenever convenient. A spouse, children or other successors can bypass costly and time-consuming probate proceedings and can sell or refinance the property without delay. Probates often take years to settle, but with a land trust, heirs could sell immediately and avoid expenses on property they inherit but don’t wish to keep.

The commissioners’ letter concludes asking the Bureau of Indian Affairs to vacate the decision for a trust on the property.

Wall-McDonald said the land acquisition is not unique to Montana.

“Nineteen states (and numerous tribes) are working on the important fee to trust work,” she said. “Moving land from fee status to trust status is routine business for tribes and for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and accounts for 1 percent of all real-estate transactions. This is not a secret effort – the CSKT buy lands (as do other major entities) and take business steps to protect it.”