Politics & Government

Casino plans discussed in D.C.

WASHINGTON -- A Madera County tribe's plans for a new casino have been frustrated by the Bush administration's "gross incompetence" in handling Indian business affairs, a key senator charged Thursday.

The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians and other tribes nationwide have been waiting months if not years for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to make crucial decisions. The bureaucratic delays are costing money and undermining morale, senators and tribal leaders agreed during a hearing designed to pressure the administration.

"The delays are just not acceptable," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat who leads the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "It seems like gross incompetence to me."

Dorgan's anger may be good news for North Fork Rancheria leaders, who want to build a casino north of the city of Madera. The tribe first needs the Bush administration to publish a draft environmental study, which has languished on a shelf for the last nine months.

Pressed by Dorgan, Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Carl J. Artman acknowledged "the frustration felt by tribes across the country" and promised to clear up decision backlogs. While not making any specific commitment concerning the North Fork Rancheria proposal, Artman insisted improvements are on the way.

"We're hoping this breaks open the logjam," said Jacquie Davis-Van Huss, tribal chairwoman of the North Fork Rancheria. "I hope Interior takes a really hard look at the backlog."

Davis-Van Huss accompanied Madera County Supervisor Frank Bigelow to the committee hearing Thursday morning. Her concerns already are well known within the Interior Department; she and Artman greeted each other warmly on a first-name basis before the hearing began.

The federal bureaucracy, though, has not always been as amicable.

"The process has been stopped," Bigelow said, "and we do not know why."

The North Fork Rancheria members want to build a $250 million resort casino on 305 acres near the Madera Municipal Airport. The tribe would build the facility in partnership with Las Vegas-based Station Casinos.

Many tribes build casinos on reservation land. By contrast, the North Fork Rancheria members are proposing to build their casino about 40 miles from their traditional home. Tribes have the right to buy land and have it placed into federal trust, essentially adding to the reservation land they can use for gambling purposes.

Critics call this "reservation shopping," and some lawmakers, including former Rep. Richard Pombo, a Tracy Republican who led the House Resources Committee, have sought to curtail it.

"Off-reservation gaming jeopardizes many of the core values Indian tribes hold dear: sovereignty, self-determination, tribal unity and economic independence," Pombo said in 2005.

Pombo was defeated by Democrat Jerry McNerney in 2006.

The Bush administration has not publicly opposed the North Fork Rancheria's proposed land purchase and casino project. Starting three years ago, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials began preparing the draft environmental-impact statement required for the transaction.

"The county considers the location ideal from an environmental, economic and land use perspective," Bigelow testified.

The environmental report was completed in early February, and Bigelow said tribal officials have been privately advised that everything "is in order." Nonetheless, despite congressional pressure, the study hasn't been published so a required public-comment period can commence.

The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians has been waiting since early September 2006 for its environmental study to be published for a proposed casino in New York state. The delay is "unfathomable," Stockbridge-Munsee tribal leader Robert Chicks said.

Artman conceded that his agency lacks a national tracking system for managing some tribal applications. He also noted that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has 1,000 vacant positions out of a work force of 10,000, and he said that getting to the bottom of some bureaucratic problems is tantamount to "peeling away the layers of an onion."

"How can this be?" Dorgan asked, referring to one delayed project in Arizona. "Somebody make a decision."