December 6, 2022

Volume XII, Number 340


December 06, 2022

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December 05, 2022

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Indian Nations Law Update - December 2015

Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) overhauls right-of-way regulations, readjusts trust relationship

As part of a broader Department of Interior effort to incorporate self-determination principles into federal law, the BIA has re-written the federal regulations at 25 C.F.R. Part 169 governing rights-of-way (ROW). The new regulations are intended to strengthen tribal sovereignty and promote economic development.

In 2012, Congress enacted the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership (HEARTH Act), whose purpose was essentially to modernize the federal trust doctrine consistent with the federal policy of tribal self-determination by significantly shifting authority over tribal lands from the federal government to tribes. The new Part 169 regulations are intended to accomplish the same goal for ROWs. The principal difference is that, in the connection with ROWs, there is no counterpart to the HEARTH Act providing a mechanism for tribes to grant ROWs without BIA approval. Nonetheless, while retaining the BIA’s approval authority, the new regulations significantly promote tribal sovereignty by: 

  • Establishing timelines for BIA review of rights-of-way requests;

  • Allowing BIA disapproval only where there is a stated compelling reason;

  • Deferring to individual Indian landowner decisions subject to an analysis of whether the decision is in their best interest;

  • Promoting tribal self-determination and self-governance by providing greater deference to tribes on decisions affecting tribal land;

  • Clarifying tribal jurisdiction over lands subject to a right-of-way;

  • Incorporating tribal land policies in processing a request for a right-of-way;

  • Permitting tribes and individual Indian landowners to negotiate the terms of their consent, which BIA incorporates into the ROW grant. 

The issue of compensation for ROWs over Indian lands has been hotly disputed in recent years. Significantly, the BIA rejected demands that tribes’ negotiating authority be limited by a requirement for a third-party determination of fair market value.

In addition to enhancing tribal self-determination, the new ROW regulations, like leasing regulations enacted under the HEARTH Act, should be viewed as an important legal infrastructure to support tribal economic development. Tribes should consider adopting procedures for tribal approval of rights-of-way, either as a stand-alone tribal ordinance or as part of a tribal HEARTH-compliant leasing ordinance.

Copyright © 2022 Godfrey & Kahn S.C.National Law Review, Volume V, Number 344

About this Author

Brian Pierson Tribal Lawyer Godfrey Kahn Law Firm

Brian Pierson leads Godfrey & Kahn's Indian Nations Law Team. Brian clerked for federal district judge Myron L. Gordon before entering private practice. Brian has more than 20 years experience representing Indian tribes, beginning with his successful representation of Chippewa Indians in federal court litigation to prevent racially-motivated interference with treaty-reserved, off-reservation fishing rights.

As leader of the firm's Indian Nations team, Brian's primary objective is to draw on the knowledge and experience of G&K's attorneys to assist tribes in formulating and...