JENNIFER TALHELM Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON The government would end its long and controversial responsibility for managing American Indian trust lands under a proposed change to a bill settling a decade-old lawsuit by Indians against the government. Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Vice Chairman Byron Dorgan, DN. D. , filed the bill last year to overhaul the trust system and end the lawsuit. The senators had discussed settling for $8 billion as recently as July, but they have struggled to find a plan all sides can accept. The latest proposal, posted this week on the committee’s Web site, is endorsed by the Bush administration. Indians claim in their classaction lawsuit that the government has mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil, gas, timber and other royalties held in trust from their lands dating back to 1887. The litigation, filed in 1996 by Blackfeet Indian Elouise Cobell, deals with individual Indians’ lands. But several tribes have also sued claiming mismanagement of their lands. The proposal would end, over a period of 10 years, most of the government’s responsibilities to manage Indian lands. The lands would remain in trust, but the landowners would make almost all the decisions about land use and all revenues would go directly to the owners. The proposal also would consolidate ownership of Indian lands, which are now often held by many people. And it would resolve all tribal claims against the government for mismanagement. McCain and Dorgan have not agreed to the changes but have asked their aides to gather input from Indians during ongoing meetings around the country. But a committee memo explaining the proposal cautions that to gain support for a multibillion- dollar bill Indians may need to agree to significant changes in the trust system. Spokesmen for the Indian plaintiffs said it was unacceptable. “It is simply one more act of bad faith and part of an obvious scheme to kill any reasonable legislation that could have resolved this case,” said Dennis Gingold, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has said he wants to find a mutually acceptable resolution to the litigation that would be “full, fair and final.” Department spokesman Shane Wolfe said the new proposal fulfills those principles.