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Gaming clouds already lengthy land-into-trust process
Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Bush administration has made 15 favorable land-into-trust for gaming decisions since 2001 but opposition is delaying the process by years, a senior Bureau of Indian Affairs official said this week.

George Skibine, the acting deputy secretary for economic development and policy, said rumors of a moratorium on land-into-trust decisions are unfounded. But he acknowledged that lengthy challenges to the process make it appear that nothing is happening at the Interior Department.

In reality, Skibine said the Bureau of Indian Affairs has agreed to 15 gaming-related land acquisitions. Most of the decisions are for tribes that were newly recognized or had their federal recognition restored after being terminated. Two involved off-reservation gaming proposals.

Yet every single decision has been challenged in court, Skibine added. Although the federal government, so far, has won every single case, he said the litigation poses a real problem.

"It takes a lot of time to win those lawsuits," Skibine said during a panel at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas on Tuesday. He said the two off-reservation casinos never became reality because the state governor, under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, vetoed them.

But even non-gaming acquisitions face delays, said Deron Marquez, the outspoken chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in California. The tribe operates a successful casino but isn't seeking land for gaming purposes.

"It's taken almost eight years to get land into trust for housing," Marquez said at the panel. Land-into-trust requests for legitimate social, education and other needs "all of a sudden become clouded" due to gaming, he observed.

Skibine and Marquez linked the opposition to growing concern over off-reservation gaming. Skibine said he has nine pending applications for gaming on "far flung" lands that might be hundreds of miles away from an existing reservation.

Marquez and his tribe have been leading Indian Country criticism against the practice. He said it threatens to destroy everything tribes have worked for since the passage of IGRA in 1988.

"The quickest way to end Indian gaming today is reservation shopping," he said, referring to the term used to describe proposals to obtain land away from existing reservations, sometimes in other states.

John Tahsuda, the majority deputy staff director for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, offered a Congressional perspective on the debate. He said "steam" is building up among some lawmakers to curtail, or stop, off-reservation gaming.

"At some point, something's going to happen to let some of this [steam] out," he told attendees.

Tahsuda said he wasn't speaking for his boss, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), but McCain, who chairs the committee, has questioned the practice. "If we have enough off-reservation casinos set up in America we're going to see a backlash against Indian gaming, because that was not the intent of the law," McCain said at a hearing this summer.

Tahsuda outlined efforts to address the situation and warned that they could dramatically alter the way the land-into-trust process works.

Litigation has already forced the BIA to make changes, as the agency now requires tribes to prepare an environmental impact statement for their land acquisitions. Previously, a less-strict environmental assessment was used but court challenges in Michigan prompted the government to make the new requirement.

Related Stories:
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Bush officials worried about off-reservation gaming (05/20)
BIA official confirms tribes skipping IGRA process (05/19)
Perception and realities in land-into-trust debate (05/19)
Senate panel urged to move with caution on gaming (04/28)
Experts debate legality of revenue-sharing compacts (04/18)
Gaming summit ends with promise but little else (03/31)
Professor downplays impact of off-reservation gaming (3/30)
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