The report is the first-ever comprehensive review of 21 federal agencies’ Tribal consultation processes for the development and implementation of federal infrastructure projects.
The GAO report identifies federal agencies’ Tribal consultation mechanisms for developing and implementing infrastructure projects. The report found that many federal agencies have neglected Tribal input when making key decisions on proposed infrastructure projects and failed to consult Tribes until late in the project development stages. Ultimately, the report found that many federal agencies lack the necessary policies and implementation mechanisms to consult Tribes impacted by federal infrastructure projects.
“Regular and meaningful consultation is a cornerstone of the government-to-government relationship between the federal government and Tribal nations. For nearly 20 years, the federal government has recognized by Executive Order 13175 the need for such consultation and to collaborate with Tribal leaders whenever federal policies affect them. Yet the GAO report confirms what is well known in Indian Country: too often, we are failing to meet our responsibilities to Native communities. As vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, I am committed to seeing that the federal government implements GAO’s recommendations and that Indian tribes’ voices are not only heard, but respected,” Udall said.
The GAO report issues recommendations to strengthen the Tribal consultation process, improve transparency, and ensure Tribal input is given meaningful consideration. The report also directs the federal government to establish a more effective mechanism to support Tribal interests in infrastructure projects, and to use that system to make Tribal consultation more streamlined both for agencies and Tribal governments.
The report is the second in a series of GAO studies examining the adequacy of federal policies that protect Tribal lands and make recommendations for improvement. The first report examined the proximity of Superfund sites – locations where hazardous materials have contaminated the environment and threaten the public’s health – that are on or near Tribal lands or have Tribal impacts.
The GAO report includes a thorough evaluation of federal agencies’ compliance with federal statutes requiring consultation with Tribes. The full report includes 22 recommendations to federal agencies identifying the need to clarify Tribal consultation policies, document communications with tribes, and follow-up with Tribes on how their input shaped agency decisions on infrastructure projects.
In 2016, following numerous reports of “check the box” Tribal consultations by the federal government, Udall, along with other Senate and House colleagues, called for a review of the consultation policies of federal agencies that permit infrastructure projects on or near Indian lands. GAO initiated the study at the beginning of 2017.