Georgia: Fort Benning/City of Columbus Land Exchange
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Agency: U.S. Army
Criteria for Council Involvement:
- This undertaking will result in the transfer of lands out of Federal ownership and protection, placing at risk properties of traditional cultural importance to Indian tribes (Criterion 4).
- The undertaking also initially raised questions regarding the Army’s compliance with both its own and Council policies regarding tribal consultation (Criterion 2).
Both the Army and the City of Columbus have been working diligently to consult with tribal governments, the Georgia State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), and the Council to formulate a new Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for the proposed exchange of land between Fort Benning and Columbus.
In April, Fort Benning hosted a day-long meeting with Indian tribes whose ancestral lands are included in the land transfer. At that meeting, tribal representatives requested a chance to evaluate sites identified by earlier archeological surveys to determine if sites previously determined ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places may have cultural value for the tribes. The city agreed to a six-month delay of the land transfer to permit this work to occur.
Continuing its government-to-government consultation with tribes, the Army conducted a two-day meeting of all the consulting parties at Fort Benning in August. The discussion was very positive, and the consulting parties moved forward in developing a draft MOA and protective covenants. It is hoped that a formal signing ceremony for the MOA may occur in mid-December.
A proposal by the Army for an exchange of land between Fort Benning and Columbus, Georgia, poses a number of Section 106 challenges which the Council has been assisting the Army in resolving. Authorized by Congress a decade ago, the transfer would provide Fort Benning with land suitable for training exercises and the city with land for development.
In 1997, a MOA that would have allowed the project to proceed as then proposed was executed among the Army, the City of Columbus, the Georgia State Historic Preservation Officer, and the Council. However, with the advent of regulatory reform initiatives by both the Army and the Council, Native American consultation issues that had remained in the background during the earlier Section 106 consultation process emerged as critical flaws in the earlier agreement.
The shortcoming came to the attention of the Army’s Environmental Center, which responded by requiring Fort Benning to reopen compliance with both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Section 106. The goal was to address the effects of the proposal on the full range of historic properties, including traditional cultural places of concern to Indian tribes. Over a dozen archeological sites with importance to tribes have been identified in the affected lands. Consultation with a host of federally recognized Indian tribes with ancestral ties to the area appeared essential.
In the course of revisiting issues under NEPA, the Army reconfigured the boundaries of the lands to be exchanged, in part to conform to the mandates of the Endangered Species Act, which was invoked for protection of the red-cockaded woodpecker. However, the new proposal still did not reflect consultation with Indian tribes. The Army proposed instead to delegate the responsibility to consult with the tribes to the city as part of covenants to be included in the transfer of the property. The Council notified the Army that this would be an insufficient basis for a new MOA and that outreach by the Army to the tribes would be a prerequisite to concluding such a document.
This case highlights the importance of tribal consultation on undertakings affecting ancestral lands. The Army has done an admirable job in compensating for earlier oversights and at Fort Benning has set a model of constructive government-to-government consultation. The case has also focused attention on the difficulty of maintaining the safeguards provided for in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act when property is conveyed out of Federal ownership.
Staff contact: Martha Catlin
March 2000 report on this case
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