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Indian Trust, settled at last | Dec 08, 2009 06:15 AM

 By Courtney Lowery, guest blogger, 12-08-09

The Obama Administration today announced that it will settle in the landmark class-action lawsuit against the Interior Department that alleged gross mismanagement of American Indian trust accounts. In a press conference, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Attorney General Eric Holder said the settlement will mean $1.4 billion will be distributed to plaintiffs.

The government has also agreed to create a $2 billion fund that will offer new trustees (created when land is “fractioned” by being passed down from generation to generation) cash payments for land that has been divided up. That will, as Interior put it, “free up the land for the benefit of tribal communities.” That brings the total settlement up to $3.4 billion.

Cobell v. Salazar was first filed in 1996 on the grounds that the government mismanaged the trust accounts (involving royalties for grazing, oil and gas and timber, among others) of more than 300,000 Indians. Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet and the lead plaintiff in the suit, told Indian Country Today that she is thankful the suit is finally coming to an end and that Indian Country especially appreciates the Obama Administration moving on the issue. Still, she said the settlement is “significantly less than the full accounting to which the class members are entitled.”

In a release, Salazar called the settlement “historic.”

“This is an historic, positive development for Indian country and a major step on the road to reconciliation following years of acrimonious litigation between trust beneficiaries and the United States,” Salazar said. “...This historic step will allow Interior to move forward and address the educational, law enforcement, and economic development challenges we face in Indian Country.”

Right now, the Interior Department manages 56 million acres of Indian trust land and on that, there are more than 100,000 leases. The agency estimates it manages $3.5 billion in trust funds.

The point of the $2 billion in buy-back money for the new “fractioned” trustees is to, as the agency put it, “By reducing the number of individual trust accounts that the U.S. must maintain, the program will greatly reduce on-going administrative expenses and future accounting-related disputes.”

The agency has promised to put 5 percent of the interests bought through the $2 billion fund into a scholarship fund for Indians.

More here from the Interior Department and more here from Indian Country Today.

Also see HCN's prior coverage of the case: Indian Money - Where Is It?, Sometimes you have to fight, Congress and Indians spar over lost money, and Scoundrels and scandals in the Interior Department.

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Seek bliss ... and work together

Mark Trahant | Dec 08, 2009 06:02 AM

What do we want in a health care system?

It’s a question Dr. Donald Berwick asked an audience of 5,000-plus people at the Institute for Health Care Improvement’s National Forum in Orlando, Fla. on Tuesday.

Such an easy question. I can quickly rattle off answers: I want health care for my family. I want to be able to see a doctor when I’m ill. I want to be made healthy.

Stop. Berwick asks again. What do you really want? I want to be healthy.

This time think about it. Step back. Inhale. Think. Exhale. What do you really, really want?

Berwick explains how hard it is to skate ski and how he only hits perfection a few times out of every hundred kicks. Yet it’s those moments he pursues. That’s what he really, really wants.

How does a cross-country kick fit into the health care reform debate? Berwick almost had surgery to replace his knee – something that would have prevented him from ever cross-country skiing again. But another doctor found an alternative to surgery. Perfect. Berwick wanted bliss, the richness of the human experience. One more moment on a mountain.

That notion is far removed from the politics of health care reform. The debate in Washington is about the role of government or insurance. It’s not about capturing bliss.

“Health care has no intrinsic value at all. None, Health does. Joy does. Peace does,” says Berwick. “The best hospital bed is empty. The best CT scan is the one we don’t need. The best doctor’s visit is the one we don’t need.”

But our current system is not designed to empty hospital beds. Our reward system – dare I say, the very foundation of free enterprise – works best when hospital beds are full, CT scanners are humming and doctor visits are available on demand. That’s even true in government and the Indian Health Service because the appropriations process does not pay for those patients not requiring treatment. Yet that very idea, a paradox, is what could lower health care costs for all.

Berwick said it’s our version of the Tragedy of the Commons. The 1968 article in Science by Garrett Hardin described a pasture open to all that works reasonably well until “a day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.” The commons no longer works because each of us seeks the best deal for them.

“Name any stakeholder – hospital, physician, nurse, insurer, pharmaceutical manufacturer, supplier, even patients’ group – every single one of them says, “Oh, we need change! We need change!” But, when it comes to specifics, every single one of them demands to be kept whole or made better off,” Berwick said. “So everybody draws on the Commons, the herds grow, and the Commons fails. If you don’t increase your herd, you’re a chump. And, who wants to be a chump?”

Let’s make being a chump a good thing. The fact is the spirit of cooperation is already driving down medical costs in places as diverse as Anchorage with the Southcentral Foundation and Alaska Native Medical Center to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Indeed, the great thing about the Indian Health System is a head start in this regard. There is a long history of consultation – doctors and government officials working together with tribal leaders – for common solutions (and with little money). The Indian Health Service invented a prevention bundle – a series of tests – that look at many aspects of a patient’s life that helps identity and then treat problems ranging from spousal abuse to depression.

“I challenge us to end the Tragedy of the Commons in health care. I challenge us to prove Garrett Hardin wrong,” Berwick said. “It isn’t easy. Positive collective action, even in small communities, and especially in health care, is fragile. It could all just fall apart. But, it can work. I know it can work because, sometimes, some places, it does work.”

Forget health care reform. Let’s shoot for what we really, really want. But if we seek bliss, that means we must get folks working together.

Mark Trahant is a Kaiser Media Fellow examining the Indian Health Service and its relevance to the national health care reform debate. He is a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

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What the Nuclear Boosters Don't Tell You

Eric Jantz | Dec 04, 2009 03:58 AM

On its surface, Grants doesn’t look like the Gateway to the Nuclear West. Its shuttered buildings, dilapidated store fronts, and overgrown vacant lots are what’s left of the promised prosperity from the last uranium boomTo really understand Grants’ and the region’s past and potential future, you’ve got to go below the surface

From the 1950’s until the mid-80’s Grants was the epicenter of the uranium mining industry in America.  The uranium that was used in the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki came from here.  Later, the Grants area also gave us the uranium that ushered in the era of “too cheap to meter” nuclear power.  This is a town that was built on the 1950’s utopian dream of a George Jetson-like personal hovercraft powered by atomic reactors and endless nearly-free nuclear generated electricity that would turn the high desert into a Garden of Eden.  But when the uranium market tanked in the mid-1980’s the fickle uranium mining companies packed up and left, leaving the local population jobless, broke and sitting on hundreds of piles of radioactive and toxic waste.

Uranium mining is rarely talked about in the media, yet it is indispensible to the nuclear fuel chain.

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Health care reform helps tribes

Mark Trahant | Nov 23, 2009 04:30 AM

A generation ago Indian Country wasn’t included in the conversation about health care reform. When Congress enacted Medicaid and Medicare it pretended that the Indian Health Service didn’t exist. It was as if it had never occurred to the government, that it, too, ran a major health care delivery system.

Say what you like about health care reform, the fact is that Indian Country is included in a big way this time around. If either the House or the Senate bill becomes law, there will be a significant boost in resources for the Indian Health system.

The largest single line item is the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, included in H.R. 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act. The Congressional Budget Office “scores” the cost at $100 million through 2014 and $200 million over a decade. Most of that cost is attributed to the “expansion of payments under Medicare.” This is important because American Indians and Alaskan Natives have the highest percentage of any population over 65 not currently enrolled in Medicare programs.

But the bigger ticket is the expansion of eligibility for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

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The Pesticide Wars

Felice Pace | Nov 20, 2009 12:20 PM

If the American Farm Bureau Federation has its way, the issue of whether herbicide spraying over water requires a Clean Water Act permit will be heard by the Supreme Court. A coalition of agricultural groups led by the Federation has petitioned the nation’s highest court to reverse an appellate court decision which found that such spraying requires an NPDES clean water permit. NPDES permits are required when pollution is delivered to a water body from a point source. What constitutes a point source for Clean Water Act purposes has been a major US legal issue for well over a decade with several previous cases reaching the Supreme Court.

The battle over pesticides and their regulation has been a constant of US environmental politics since Rachel Carson’s landmark Silent Spring was published in 1962. In the West the conflict heated up in the 1970s when a group of women from Alsea, Oregon documented what they believed was an association between spontaneous abortion rates and herbicide spraying in the industrial forests near their homes.  Erik Jansson was working on pesticide issues for Friends of the Earth at the time. He publicized the plight of the Alsea women and helped create a national campaign to restrict aerial herbicide spraying.

The warning from Alsea and Friends of the Earth exploded across the West where an army of back-to-the-land hippies had recently arrived in search of a life free from industrial threats. Here in Northwest California health workers at Native American clinics also took note.

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Reader Photo - Cowboy Up

Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Nov 20, 2009 06:02 AM


This week's reader photo is a classic Western image from a great photographer who's shared a bunch of neat shots up on HCN's Flickr Pool. Check them out and add yours!


Wyoming - the Uranium State?

Michael Glenn Easter | Nov 18, 2009 06:55 AM

They’re calling it a “uranium renaissance.”  Wyoming is prepping itself for what is slated to be another boom in uranium mining for the fourth time in 60 years.

Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West are all too familiar with energy boom and bust cycles. Just ask all the people who lost jobs in the oil bust of the '80s, or in Wyoming’s Cold War-fueled uranium boom and subsequent bust of the ‘50s. 

Nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of the power generated by the United States.  But this figure is likely to increase - with the green movement, coal-fired power plants aren't as popular as they used to be.  Across the United States, 21 new nuclear power plants have been proposed.  Worldwide, there are 53 nuclear power plants being built right now, with many, many more in the works.  Even Nevada, who held strong to the “we don’t have a nuclear plant so we we’re not taking your nuclear waste,” argument against the Yucca Mountain storage facility, is considering going nuclear.  Overall, the World Nuclear Association estimates a 78 percent increase in uranium demand over the next 20 years.

This is where Wyoming comes in.

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Saving Tortoises one Student at a Time

Seth Shteir | Nov 17, 2009 01:49 AM

“When I saw the night sky for the first time in the Mojave National Preserve I felt like a layer of film had been peeled away from my eyes,” says David Lamfrom, the Barstow based field coordinator for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“I want the kids who live in the high desert to realize how rare and precious it is.”

Lamfrom and his partner Rana Knighten are on a mission to share their love of nature and the Mojave National Preserve with underserved students from California’s High Desert. They’ve created the innovative Tortoises through the Lens Program, which takes diverse youth and teaches them conservation ethics through nature photography and field study. Students Photograph TortoisesThe students take field trips, do volunteer work and go to lectures to learn about the ecology and life history of the threatened desert tortoise.  The planning, photographs and writing they do throughout the course of the year culminate in a published book about Desert Tortoise Conservation and an exhibit of the students photography at the Kelso Depot Visitor’s Center in the Mojave National Preserve.

Lamfrom knows the challenges of engaging today’s youth in nature.

“Many children who grow up in highly urbanized and underserved communities - and I’m speaking from personal experience - live in a world of buildings and streets and noise. When they come to wild places they are scared because it’s so foreign to them.”   

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A Western Town, Contaminated

Bryce Andrews | Nov 16, 2009 01:30 AM

Bryce Andrews of the Clark Fork River Coalition, reports from a Superfund Meeting at the Opportunity, Mont., Community Center

I drove in just before 7 pm, down a little spur road that headed west a few miles after Warm Springs. Ahead of me the Anaconda Stack, lit up by amber lights around its base, slipped in and out of view behind willows. Glimpsed from the corner of my eye, the faint-glowing stack looked like a plume of smoke. It towered over roadside yard-lights like the stalk of a mushroom cloud.

It’s no accident that driving to Opportunity feels setting a course for heart of something huge and awful: The area around that blithely named one-horse town is closing in on a century of use as our regional trash can.

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Reader Photo - Red Aspen Leaves

Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Nov 13, 2009 09:13 AM

Fall in the Boulder Mountains

I pondered featuring this reader photo a couple weeks ago, but ended up with a different choice. Today, though, the sparkling vermilion of these aspen leaves, now blanketing forest floors across the West, brought me a bright remembrance of Colorado's  autumn moments, which I wanted to share with you.

Across most of the West it's starting to feel like winter. I don't mind holding on to fall a little bit longer, though.

Share your photos (or just enjoy looking at others') on HCN's Flickr pool; we pick one a week to feature on our Grange blog.

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