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Eastern District Upholds Bureau of Indian Affairs Decision to Take 853 Acres of Land in Yolo County into Trust for Yocha Dehe Wintu Nation

On Thursday, September 14, 2017, Judge Morrison England of the Eastern District of California upheld a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) decision to transfer 853 acres of land in Yolo County into trust for the Yocha Dehe Wintu Nation (Tribe).  The Tribe previously owned the land, which consists of 15 parcels of primarily agricultural land, four vacant structures, and the Tribe’s Cultural Department, in fee simple.

In June 2011, the Tribe applied to BIA to transfer the land, citing its intent to develop 99 acres with 25 housing units, a new school, cultural and educational facilities, and a wastewater treatment facility.  The Tribe further averred any intention to change the agricultural status of the remaining 754 acres.  BIA gave notice on July 29, 2013 to solicit comments from state and local governments.  Capay Valley Coalition (CVC) — a mutual benefit, non-profit corporation of residents, citizens, and farmers in Capay Valley — and Yolo County submitted comments opposing the application, based in part on the Tribe’s purported need for the trust land.  The BIA issued its Notice of Decision (NOD) in April 2014 approving the transfer.  CVC appealed.  The Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs (AS-IA) upheld BIA’s decision, and CVC filed suit against named Federal defendants in their official capacity and the BIA.  The Tribe sought leave to intervene, which the court granted on April 18, 2016.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1935 (IRA, 25 U.S.C. § 461 et seq.) allows the Secretary of the Interior to acquire land and hold it in trust in order to provide land for Indians.  Trust land is no longer subject to (1) state or local taxation; (2) local zoning and regulatory requirements; or (3) state criminal and civil jurisdiction, unless the Tribe consents to such jurisdiction.  The BIA must follow criteria set forth in Title 25, Code of Federal Regulations section 151.10 when determining to acquire trust land when the land is adjacent to or within existing reservations and the acquisition of trust land is not mandatory.  CVC challenged BIA’s decision for failure to sufficiently consider the Tribe’s need for trust land under section 151.10, as well as failure to sufficiently consider potential jurisdictional and land use issues that may arise under the transfer.

The CVC, the Federal defendants, and the Tribe filed motions for summary judgment in July and September 2016, based on findings in the administrative record.  The court analyzed BIA’s decision to grant the Tribe’s request for trust land under the “arbitrary and capricious standard” of the Administrative Procedure Act.

CVC was required to demonstrate that BIA’s approval of the Tribe’s application was arbitrary and capricious based upon “evidence that the [BIA] did not consider a particular factor” when making its decision.  CVC argued that BIA failed to sufficiently analyze the Tribe’s need and potential impacts on jurisdictional and land use issues.  CVC further argued that BIA’s use of language from the Tribe’s application indicated a failure to independently evaluate the necessary factors and that the Tribe’s application failed to provide BIA with all relevant information, including an acknowledgement that the Tribe’s existing trust land was fully developed.

The court rejected CVC’s arguments in turn, based on the sufficiency of the administrative record.  The court held that the administrative record contained proper consideration of the Tribe’s need for additional trust land, affirming the AS-IA’s reasoning and BIA’s decision.  The BIA does not need to consider:  (1) why the Tribe needs the land in trust, rather than in fee simple; (2) how each acre will be used; or (3) the possibility of transferring less than the requested acreage into trust when evaluating Tribal need for trust land under section 151.10.  The court held that the administrative record reflected sufficient findings that the Tribe needed the land in trust for expansion and growth; restoration of its ancestral land base; and the exercise of self-governance over agricultural lands, given the Tribe’s interest in “maintaining the rural character of the Nation and surrounding lands.”  The court further held that BIA sufficiently addressed jurisdictional and land use issues.  CVC contended that their and the county’s concerns regarding potential future land development were ignored by BIA.  The court found that the record properly reflected BIA’s adequate analysis that:  (1) California retained criminal/prohibitory jurisdiction over Indian lands pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1161 and 25 U.S.C. § 1360; (2) the Tribe’s intent to maintain 754 acres of land as agricultural land posed no concern for the loss of Yolo County regulatory jurisdiction; and (3) BIA is not required to analyze potential future uses when taking land into trust.  The court also held that nothing in the administrative record indicated BIA conducted anything but an independent review of the Tribe’s application and that the application contained all relevant information, including the acknowledgement that the Tribe’s present trust land was fully developed.  The court granted summary judgment in favor of the Federal defendants and the Tribe.  CVC has 60 days to file an appeal.

For additional information on this case please contact Daniel Quinley at dquinley@somachlaw.com.

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