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McDaniel Ranch achieves trust status

The tribe’s McDaniel Ranch features nearly 4,000 acres near the Big Cypress Reservation. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

The fee-to-trust process for the 3,980-acre McDaniel Ranch near the Big Cypress Reservation has been finalized and the property has moved into trust held by the U.S. government for the Seminole Tribe of Florida as sovereign land.

“We accomplished this in less than two years, and during the pandemic, which the Bureau of Indian Affairs thinks is a record of efficiency, certainly for a property of this size,” said Jonathan Levy, the tribe’s director of real estate.

The tribe purchased the property in 2019.

Attorney Ken Dodge, who helped to facilitate the fee-to-trust process, said when land owned by the tribe is put into trust as sovereign land, the tribe benefits in three significant ways: self-determination, economic development and housing. By putting land into trust, it is free from state and local regulatory jurisdiction. In the past, getting land put into trust could take years. It took about nine years to get the tribe’s Lakeland property into trust in 2016.

To reach the finish line for the McDaniel property, Levy scheduled monthly WebEx meetings for all stakeholders, including BIA decision makers, to try to accelerate the process. Levy had to play hardball when some invitees didn’t attend the first meeting in April 2021.

“When one of the BIA decision makers missed the first scheduled call, I cancelled the call and rescheduled it for the following day,” Levy said. “I told everyone we would continue to reschedule it for every day until we had full participation. We never had any issues after that.”

About a year later, the transfer into trust was complete and the BIA moved the land into trust. The process’s detailed checklist included feedback from local governments. In this case, Hendry County had jurisdiction over the land, which they would relinquish if the land went into trust.

Before the BIA puts land into trust, state and local governments with regulatory jurisdiction over the land are given 30 days to provide written comments about the potential impact on regulatory jurisdiction, real property taxes and special assessments. In a letter to the BIA dated Jan. 31, the county stated that it provided fire response, emergency medical services, law enforcement, emergency management, planning and zoning, code enforcement and collected taxes on the land. The county also had concerns that McDaniel Ranch is not contiguous to the Big Cypress Reservation.

The BIA’s response to the county explained that the acquisition of the land was to facilitate tribal self- determination and that the tribe would provide those services. It also indicated that the taxes lost, 0.15% of the county’s total budget, was not significant enough to halt the trust process.

The McDaniel Ranch is 3.2 miles north of the Big Cypress Reservation and is within the geographic range of the tribe’s traditional and ancestral lands. On June 14, the Hendry County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to not appeal the BIA’s decision. The motion to approve was made by Commissioner Karson Turner, who spoke favorably about the county’s relationship with the tribe.

“We don’t have a partner like this; the Seminole Tribe of Florida, in my opinion, they’re our brothers and sisters,” Turner said before the vote. “In my opinion, they look out for us on a daily basis. They probably have about 250 people per day that go down there to work, that are gainfully employed and would not be earning the salaries they earn if the Seminole Tribe wasn’t the influential power player they are in the state. This is a good thing. I think we should work with our partners to the south and recognize it and be supportive of that.”

The tribe has four other properties going through the fee-to-trust process. They are Rio Ranch and St. Thomas Ranch near the Brighton Reservation, the Immokalee Indian Camp and about eight acres near the Lakeland property. The plan is to get all the land the tribe owns in Florida put into trust.

“The goal is to get everything we can [into trust] for the benefit of the tribe for generations to come,” Levy said. “It’s so thrilling to return the land to the hands of the caretakers who know it best and will care for it best and preserve it for generations to come. The rest of the country can take a lesson from that.”

Cattle graze at McDaniel Ranch in 2020. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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