BIA OKs Osage Nation land plan

Robert Smith

The regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Eastern Oklahoma has denied an appeal by the Osage County Board of Commissioners regarding a decision by the Osage Nation to place a 75-acre land tract into trust status for economic development purposes.

“We hope Osage County and the Osage County District Attorney will stand down from further obstruction to our efforts to promote this property,” Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey M. Standing Bear said, after learning that the county’s appeal had been denied. “We are always willing to work with Osage County and the city of Tulsa in creating business opportunities and jobs for our shared community.”

Osage County District Attorney Rex Duncan said he took the steps requested of him by his client, the Board of Commissioners, and acted according to his statutory responsibilities.

“I am not and have never been a voting member of the Board of Commissioners,” Duncan said, emphasizing he did his duty as an attorney, and did not act as a policymaker in the matter. He added that any District Attorney who cannot with a clear conscience represent his client “has no business asking for the job.”

Duncan is standing for re-election this year. He has two opponents.

District 3 County Commissioner Darren McKinney defended his support for the county’s appeal of the Osage Nation’s decision regarding the land parcel.

“I did my job,” McKinney said. “That’s the way I felt then. That’s the way I feel now.”

McKinney, who is a member of the Osage Nation, said he does not anticipate any further appeal by the county, but he said the county is losing money because of the Osage Nation’s decision, and he felt it was his job as a county commissioner to help keep revenues coming into county coffers.

“Right or wrong, that’s what I did,” McKinney said, adding he thinks he made the right choice.

What the county commissioners had appealed was an Osage Nation decision to place a key portion of the old North Tulsa Airpark into federal trust, the Osage Nation said in a news release.

“Osage County had claimed a loss of property taxes would negatively affect county finances,” the Osage Nation said. “Osage Nation officials counter that failure to place the land into trust impedes planned expansion and recruitment of local aviation-oriented companies. Planned development for the tract includes a technology-centered business park designed to attract specialized higher education, industrial development, and collaborative innovation focused on Unmanned Aerial Systems, often referred to as drones.”

Duncan said the Osage Nation’s decision will cost Osage County upwards of $70,000 annually in tax revenues, the majority of which — more than $50,000 per year — would have gone to help finance the public schools.

Duncan contended that the recent public school teacher walkout in regard to adequate education funding is the most important news story in Oklahoma right now, but no one is talking about how the Osage Nation’s land-trust decision will cut education funding significantly in Osage County.

In its news release regarding the BIA’s denial of the county’s appeal, the Osage Nation noted that BIA Regional Director Eddie Streater sent Duncan a letter that stated, in part: “Based upon the record before the Region, the loss of ad-valorem taxes attributable to the Tulsa Back 75 property will be of minimal impact on Osage County, and do not constitute grounds to deny the subject trust application.”

In the Osage Nation’s news release, Chief Standing Bear cited the Osage Nation’s many generous voluntary contributions to Osage County, including donations to various Osage County government entities, contributions to schools in the county, funding of tribal governmental programs that provide numerous health and human services as well as police and fire services, employment of area residents and community sponsorships.

The 75-acre tract is adjacent to the Osage Nation’s Tulsa Casino, the Osage Nation said. The former Tulsa Downtown Airpark has been renamed and repurposed as Skyway 36, an innovation zone owned and operated by the Osage Nation, the Nation said.

“Skyway 36 is an important project for the Osage Nation and the North Tulsa community. We are excited about the prospects for economic development and quality job creation,” said Osage Nation Information Services Director Mark Kirk.

Duncan said he doesn’t know that the county commissioners will ask him to do anything in regard to the denied appeal, but he said the county does have the option to appeal the regional director’s decision to another administrative level within the Bureau of Indian Affairs.