Saturday, January 5, 2008

Interior Delivers Blow To Tribe's Diversification Program

By Ken Davison
Feather News

The U.S. Department of Interior issued new policies that will further restrict the ability of Indian tribes to add land for casinos to their reservation land-base if the properties aren't close to their reservation. The Interior Department subsequently denied numerous applications that were either incomplete or were awaiting decisions.

While applications from the two tribes that are partnering with the Mohegans are not yet close to reaching the final decision stage, the new policy may not even permit the Wisconsin casino land-into-trust application to be approved once the application does satisfy the criteria that existed before last week's policy changes.

Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Carl Artman, also sent letters to two tribes that are seeking permission to build mega-casinos in the Catskill Mountains of New York, 70 miles northeast of the Mohegan's Pocono Downs racino in Pennsylvania.

The St. Regis Mohawks and the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans of Wisconsin, both seeking a Catskills casino, were among various tribes whose applications were denied on Friday. The Stockbridge-Munsee are partners with Len Wolman and Sol Kerzner, who developed and initially managed the Mohegan Sun. Their company, Trading Cove Associates, recieves 5% of every dollar spent at the Mohegan Sun until 2014 in a consulting contract which, ironically, ended their management consulting services with the tribe in 1999.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe negotiated a compact with New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and completed an environmental assessment, the two steps needed before land can be put into trust as reservation land and had long been seeking a ruling from Secretary of the Interior Dick Kempthorne. In late October, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe sued the Department of Interior for not making a decision on their pending application. In their suit, the tribe claimed Kempthorne's personal views against off-reservation land additions were affecting his responsibilities as Interior Secretary.

Under the Interior Department's new guidelines, the land in the Catskills was too far from the St. Regis Mohawk's Akwesasne Reservation, therefore is too far away for tribal members who live on the reservation to work and if they did relocate, it would hurt the reservation. "The departure of a significant number of reservation residents and their families could have serious and far-reaching implications for the remaining tribal community and its continuity as a community,” Kempthorne said in his letters to both tribes. The Catskills property is about 300 miles from their Akwesasne reservation on the U.S.-Canadian border. Some Indian leaders are bothered by the paternalistic nature of the new guidelines.

The Mohegan Tribe has wagered tens of millions of dollars on two future casino ventures with tribes in Wisconsin and the state of Washington that hinge on the Interior Department eventually taking off-reservation land parcels into trust for the casinos. Neither project has yet to reach the point where its application is complete but the new guidelines, which stress local government support, could further hamper their efforts. An agreement reached with the local government where the Cowlitz Tribe hopes to build their tribal casino in Washington was recently invalidated in court last year. The proposed location for the casino is in Clark County, near La Center and 25 miles from a recently relocated Cowlitz headquarters in Longview.

The Interior Department did not rule on the $800 million casino project between the Mohegans and the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, however, an application from the Lac Du Flambeau Chippewa tribe of Wisconsin was denied in which the tribe sought to build a casino in southeastern Wisconsin, 308 miles from their reservation. The Kenosha casino would be about 200 miles from the Menominee reservation. The Mohegans will manage the proposed Wisconsin casino for seven years if it opens. Out of the Mohegan's share of management fees, 85% would go to MTGA while the other 15% could go into the tribal government's treasury (through a subsidiary controlled by the Mohegan tribal government).

The application from Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican of Wisconsin was denied for the same reasons as those stated in the letter to the St. Regis Mohawks.

The Interior Department also denied a request by the Kickapoo and the Sac and Fox tribes to take 40 acres of land in Wyandotte, Ks., into trust due to incomplete information. The tribes can resubmit their applications with information that will satisfy the new regulations, according to new guidelines.

It is likely that the tribes whose applications were denied last week will resubmit their applications during the next administration, after President Bush and appointees like Kempthorne leave office.