To the Editor: Concerned about casino shift

I am deeply concerned about the supposed recent change in the Timbisha Shoshone tribe’s trust acquisition strategy, and I am appalled at the limited response offered by the city. Throughout hours of public debate and in official materials provided by the city at www.ridgecrestcasino.com, the public was led to believe that the tribe would go through a fee-to-trust process specifically required for off-reservation trust acquisitions for gaming purposes.

City information indicated that the Bureau of Indian Affairs would “evaluate the business plan at a later stage”; that the fee-to-trust process would include a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, as well as an investigation of “social, environmental and economic” impacts. Further, city materials indicated that the federal process would include investigations of “Local/Regional Support,” “Economic Sense” and “Aboriginal Rights.” All of these are features of an off-reservation fee-to-trust application for gaming purposes; none of these are required considerations in a mandatory acquisition.

Why does this matter? The fee-to-trust process associated with off-reservation acquisitions for gaming purposes requires the Secretary of the Interior to make a two-part determination. The secretary is required to determine, first, whether the acquisition would be of benefit to the tribe and second, whether the acquisition would be detrimental to the surrounding community.

The application process for such acquisitions is extensive: it requires submission of business plans and economic impact statements; it requires a full review under NEPA; it requires consultation with local governments and other interested parties; it requires public notice in locally circulated papers; it requires concurrence by the governor; and finally, it is subject to administrative appeals — all of this prior to the land being taken into trust.

None of that will happen here.

By requesting a mandatory fee-to-trust acquisition at the level of the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, the tribe has conveniently removed each of the hurdles associated with a fee-to-trust acquisition for gaming purposes. According to the BIA Fee-to-Trust handbook, the Department of the Interior doesn’t even have to inform the city prior to issuing an acquisition decision. Upon mutual agreement that the parcel is part of a mandatory acquisition. The assistant secretary actually “does not have discretion to deny the request to accept title of land into trust,” no matter its impact to the surrounding community. Once the decision is issued, our only recourse is a federal lawsuit.

Chairman Gholson has told the Daily Independent that “The process is as new to the tribe as it is to anyone else, Because we have never taken land into trust for gaming. We have never been this far.”

While the tribe has experienced some turmoil and regulations have changed since tribe members attempted a gaming project in Hesperia, they are hardly bumbling through this process. First, all mandatory fee-to-trust acquisitions are initiated at the tribe’s request.

Mr. White, himself, informed the city that the mandatory acquisition request was sent “After the approval of the MSA with the city [requesting] the Department of the Interior and the tribe to mutually agree that the Ridgecrest parcel [could] be taken into trust for the benefit of the tribe pursuant to the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act.”

Second, though the tribe initially met with personnel from the BIA Pacific Regional office, the Memorandum of Agreement was, as presumably the acquisition decision will be, issued at the level of the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, a path that eliminates all public comment and administrative appeal and that severely limits the secretary’s discretion to deny the trust request. And although it appears the tribe may not have submitted an official mandatory acquisition request, BIA personnel indicated that they were already planning to conduct a site survey required of such acquisitions.

The tribe was clearly aware of the provisions in Homeland Act that allowed for a parcel to be substituted for the Lida Ranch acquisition. And with an hour or two of research and a little reading, I was able to find the BIA Fee-to-Trust Handbook regulations describing exactly what is required in mandatory acquisitions.

At every turn, the tribe has sought to limit the community’s opportunity to influence decision-makers, first by structuring the agreement to avoid triggering CEQA review requirements, then by pushing for a quick approval of the MSA and opposing a city-wide referendum on the project and now by seeking a mandatory trust acquisition based on exchanging the tribe’s right to a 2000 acre potential property for just 26 acres here in Ridgecrest.

Even as the tribe seeks to protect its investment, community members should insist on the protections afforded to communities through the off-reservation fee-to-trust acquisition process. With a decision is still pending at the Department of the Interior, the city and the community have one last real opportunity to influence the acquisition process by requesting that our elected representatives and officials at the BIA and Department of the Interior take action to protect the community’s interests.

During the debates we were told the NEPA process would protect the community’s interests. We were told that the fee-to-trust process would protect the community’s interests. We were told that the land sale would protect the community’s interests through restrictive covenants.

But at every turn, it appears that these protections have been neglected, given away in negotiation or withdrawn at the whim of the tribe. It is past time we look out for the community’s interests instead of trusting to the tribe, the developer and the federal government to do so.

Ricky Fielding

Story First Published: 2017-03-10