Wisconsin tribe vows fight for off-reservation casino
A Wisconsin tribe's worst fear became reality on Wednesday with the Bush administration's rejection of a proposed off-reservation casino.

The 11th-hour decision, less than two weeks before the inauguration of president-elect Barack Obama, was not a surprise. The Menominee Nation, in a lawsuit filed late last year, said rejection was imminent.

But the tribe won't stop fighting for the $800 million Kenosha casino. Chair Lisa Waukau said the Interior Department acted illegally by denying a land-into-trust application for the 223-acre site.

"The rejection today is not the end of the project, only a temporary setback," Waukau said. "The project will create thousands of jobs, generate billions of dollars in revenue for state and local government and help an impoverished tribe become economically self-sufficient."

The tribe, whose reservation was recently rated the least healthy place in the state, is challenging a "guidance memorandum" that was issued by the Bush administration in January 2008. Without tribal consultation or public comment, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been instructed to treat off-reservation land acquisitions with greater scrutiny.

In the case of the Menominees, the proposed casino is nearly 200 miles from the reservation. According to the BIA, the distance is too far to benefit tribal members, who are among the poorest in Wisconsin.

"The tribe has not convincingly demonstrated why the potential negative impacts on reservation life from taking land into trust beyond a commutable distance are outweighed by the financial benefits of tribal ownership in a distant gaming facility," George Skibine, the top gaming official at the BIA, said in a letter to the tribe.

Skibine, a career employee, is currently in charge of the BIA. He was assigned the duties of the agency after Carl Artman, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, resigned in May 2008.

Artman wrote the January 3, 2008, "guidance memorandum" that made it harder for tribes to acquire land away from existing reservations. In testimony to Congress, he suggested 40 miles would be the farthest that would be acceptable to the BIA.

The memorandum has been used to reject more than a dozen off-reservation casinos in Wisconsin, New York, California and Oklahoma. But litigation has not been proven successful so far, although the Menominees believe their case will move forward now that the BIA has issued a final decision.

Two other Wisconsin tribes, the St. Croix Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, are still waiting for action on their off-reservation casino. A lawsuit filed back in December 2007 anticipated the Bush administration's shift in policy.

Tribes now hope the new Obama administration will change course. They are looking to Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colorado), the nominee for Interior secretary, and the new assistant secretary for Indian affairs to rescind the memorandum and other restrictive gaming policies.

Outgoing Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne opposed off-reservation gaming when he was governor of Idaho. After he joined the Bush administration in May 2006, the BIA changed how it reviews land-into-trust applications and gaming compacts without consulting tribes and without going through the rule-making process.

Obama and Salazar have promised a more collaborative approach and said they will consult with tribes before making decisions that affect them. Salazar goes before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on January 15 for his confirmation hearing.

BIA Letter:
George Skibine to Menominee Nation (January 7, 2009)

Recent Court Decision:
Menominee Nation v. Kempthorne (November 26, 2008)

Off-Reservation Gaming Policy:
Guidance on taking off-reservation land into trust for gaming purposes (January 3, 2008)

Related Stories:
Menominee Nation off-reservation casino in limbo (12/9)
Gaming compact rule finalized by Bush administration (12/8)
Strong outlook for Indian Country under Obama (11/21)
NIGC prepares for transition to new administration (11/19)
Indian gaming issues up for Obama's review (11/18)
BIA proposes new rule for tribal-state gaming compacts (7/2)
Gaming regulations finalized by resigning Artman (5/20)
Artman suggests mileage limit for off-reservation land (02/28)
BIA starts new year with off-reservation gaming policy (1/7)
Rejected tribes want casinos too far from reservations (1/7)
Bush holding back off-reservation gaming proposals (11/16)