By Chuck Slothower
Four Corners Business Journal
FARMINGTON A new piece of legislation may help homeowners and small businesses to more easily lease tribal lands on the Navajo Nation and other American Indian reservations.
President Barack Obama signed the Hearth Act in July after it overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate. The bill turns over more authority for tribes to approve leases on their lands.
Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., was the bill's original sponsor. Heinrich said he heard from constituents who had to wait two years for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to approve mortgages so they could buy a home.
"If you're adding two years to the process of buying a home, you can imagine how problematic that is," Heinrich said in an interview. "This bill was designed to fix that."
The Navajo Nation was a model for the legislation, Heinrich said. The tribe allows long-term leasing that can lend businesses and homeowners a degree of certainty.
"The last thing we should be doing in the face of the kind of unemployment that exists in tribal communities is to make is harder to buy and build homes," he said. "I think this will help in tribal areas to reduce unemployment and put people to work in their own communities."
The legislation also will help businesses, the congressman said.
"It'll make it easier for small businesses to get started on tribal land as well," he said.
Property on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands is held by the federal government in trust, a total of 56 million acres. That can make it difficult for business owners, who are accustomed to owning their business sites.
"The closest thing we have to ownership is leasing," said Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo President Ben Shelly. "It is a challenge for businesses coming onto the Navajo Nation."
Leases on the Navajo Nation must get archaeological clearances, and make sure they don't interfere with existing grazing permits, Zah said.
The tribal government is working to make buildings more easily transferable, and is talking with Arizona authorities about a possible tax credit so businesses don't have to pay both state and tribal tax.
The Navajo Nation has had some of the authorities granted by the Hearth Act for several years.
"For us, it has speeded the process of new leases," Zah said.
The Hearth Act complements comprehensive reforms under way in Native American land leasing, said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
"These parallel efforts will have a real impact for individuals and families who want to own a home or build a business Êgenerating investment, new jobs and revenues," Salazar said in a written statement.
Added Donald E. "Del Laverdure, acting assistant secretary of Indian affairs: "The Hearth Act has been a legislative priority for Interior because it advances the authority and ability of federally recognized tribes to control their homelands and provides them greater self-determination."