National Tribal Broadband Summit
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted American Indian and Alaska Native communities across the country, causing schools to close, offices to shift to telework, and countless businesses and services to prioritize online transactions. Now more than ever, reliable, affordable broadband access is critical to the health and economic wellbeing of tribal communities. That is why I have been working to make navigating broadband development in Indian Country less burdensome.
Following on the success of last year's landmark meeting of the National Tribal Broadband Summit in Washington, D.C., we hosted a National Tribal Broadband Virtual Summit on September 21-25, 2020 in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This year's virtual Summit brought together leaders from across the broadband development ecosystem to share best practices, new ideas, and lessons learned from their real-world experience bringing high-speed internet to Native American homes and businesses, giving participants the tools they need to bridge the connectivity gap in Indian Country and unlock the opportunities broadband access can provide. Over 900 individuals registered for the event, more than three times last year's attendance.
In July 2019 we issued the Indian Affairs Mortgage Handbook, 521AM 4-H, to provide guidance to BIA staff for processing leasehold and trust-land mortgages on trust or restricted land. By helping ensure the timely and more transparent processing of mortgages on Indian lands, the new Handbook will also help contribute to increased prosperity and economic development in Indian Country.
Off-Reservation Fee-to-Trust Decisions
On May 31, 2018 Indian Affairs issued National Policy Memorandum NPM-TRUS-36 for off reservation fee-to-trust requests. In providing policies and procedures for processing off reservation fee-to-trust applications and delegating the authority to decide those applications to the Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs, the memorandum ensured transparency and accountability in a process that is critical to restoring tribal sovereignty. I am proud to report that in August of this year these policies and procedures became a part of the Department's Indian Affairs Manual to ensure their continuing benefits. 52 1AM 15 (Aug. 7, 2020).
Trust Land Acquisitions
In an effort to promote self-determination, economic development, and Indian housing under my leadership, by this time last year the BIA had accepted over 29,600 acres of land into trust for tribes. I am very pleased to report that in the year since, the BIA has accepted 19,000 more acres of land into trust for tribes based on 494 applications. To help expedite the processing of fee-to trust applications and reduce the burden on tribes that submit applications, the Department in 2020 issued Guidance for reviewing tribal eligibility for trust-land acquisitions under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
Tribal Energy Resource Agreement Reforms
Economic development in Indian Country starts with Native people. The Department supports tribal decision-making on tribal lands, and it has delivered on the promise of Tribal Energy Resource Agreements (TERAs) by producing regulations that facilitate tribal decision-making, not hinder it. The TERAs promote tribal control over energy development on tribal lands and offer the potential for economic growth by allowing tribes to enter into leases, business agreements, and rights-of-way for energy resource development on tribal lands without the Secretary's review or approval.
In line with President Trump's promise to cut back red tape, the Department understands that tribes themselves should decide the appropriate balance between development and environmental protections on their lands. In June 2019 Indian Affairs proposed changes to TERA regulations aiming to remove hefty regulatory requirements and to establish an alternative to TERA through a certification of Tribal Energy Development Organization (TEDO). The new rule took effect on December 18, 2019.4 Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act Approvals.
In July of this year I announced changes to the Indian Affairs Manual that codify our new policy governing how the BIA will review and approve tribal leasing regulations applications submitted under the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership (HEARTH) Act of 4 84 Fed. Reg. 69602 (Dec. 18, 2019).
2012.5 These detail the steps the BIA will take from the moment it receives an application to final approval and publication in the Federal Register. This new policy is intended to make the process as transparent as possible and to clearly define the roles of each reviewer.
The timing of the new policy coincides with the eighth anniversary of the HEARTH Act's being signed into law. While serving as Assistant Secretary, the number of approved HEARTH Act leasing regulations for tribes has increased nearly 84 percent. In the last year, I have approved HEARTH Act regulations for the Menominee Indian Tribe, the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, the Forth Belknap Indian Community, the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, the Pueblo of Laguna, and the Catawba Indian Nation. The BIA continues to work with many Tribes on their HEARTH Act regulation approvals, and I anticipate that more than 60 will have been approved by the end of 2020.
Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development Grants.
On February 5, 2020 the Indian Affairs' Office of lndian Energy and Economic Development (IEED) announced grant awards of over $700,000 to 21 American Indian and Alaska Native groups under the Native American Business Development Institute (NABDI). The NABDI empowers tribes to conduct feasibility studies on the viability of an economic development project, opportunity, enterprise, business or technology. In June, we solicited proposals for technical assistance funding to hire consultants to perform feasibility studies of economic development opportunities located in designated Opportunity Zones. Eligibility for funding was limited to those applicants whose proposed projects, businesses, or technologies will be located in designated Opportunity Zones.6 This is a new tax incentive established by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of2017 to encourage long-term investments in low-income communities across the United States, including Indian Country. The deadline for NABDI application submissions was September 28, 2020 and grants are expected to be announced in October 2020.
On August 13, 2020 IEED announced grant awards of $1.2 million to 23 federally recognized tribes and Alaska Native entities to study the feasibility of developing or extending broadband services in their communities under the National Tribal Broadband Grant (NTBG) program. Six additional awards were made in September 2020 totaling approximately $276,000. The purpose of the NTBG is to spur economic development and commercial activity, create opportunities for self-employment, enhance educational resources and remote learning opportunities, and meet emergency and law enforcement needs by bringing broadband services to underserved Native American communities. Twenty-seven of the 29 NTBG grants awarded involve studies of broadband projects located in Opportunity Zones. Feasibility studies funded by the grants will assess the current broadband services, if any, that are available to each grantee's community; engineering evaluations of new or expanded broadband services; estimates of the cost of building or expanding broadband networks; determination of the transmission medium(s) to be employed; identification of potential funding and/or financing for networks; and consideration of financial and practical risks associated with developing broadband systems.