Gun Lake land to be taken into trust

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BRADLEY, Mich. – The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi’s planned casino and entertainment center took a great leap forward recently when the federal government announced it would take land into trust for the project early next year.

The Interior Department will take 146 acres in Allegan County into trust for the tribe, which is known as the Gun Lake Tribe, on Jan. 5, 2007, according to an Oct. 27 Justice Department filing in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., and with Michigan Gambling Opposition (MichGO), an anti-Indian casino group.

“This is another very significant step forward for our tribe. We applaud the actions of the federal government in their efforts to provide relief to the tribe and the local communities that are eager for the thousands of jobs and economic growth the casino will provide,” Chairman D.K. Sprague said.

The tribe expects to begin construction next spring, Sprague said.

MichGO has until Jan. 5 to file an injunction against Interior, a legal step the group will take, spokesman John Helmholdt said.

“MichGO will be filing the preliminary motion for injunction and we’re going to continue to cooperate and work with the court in a timely manner and leave it up to the court to decide,” Helmholdt said.

The 300-member Gun Lake Tribe was federally acknowledged in 1999, but its effort to take land into trust have been snarled in court and at Interior since then.

Interior granted final approval to the tribe’s land into trust application in May 2005. MichGO immediately challenged Interior in a lawsuit that is pending in the Washington federal court.

Last January, the tribe and the Justice Department filed for a summary judgment of MichGO’s lawsuit, but the court has not acted since then. Around the same time, a federal appeals court dismissed an identical lawsuit that sought to delay the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi from developing Four Winds Casino Resort in southwestern Michigan. The dismissal set a precedent for MichGo’s action against Gun Lake.

Helmholdt said the latest decision “is a very heavy-handed legal maneuver by the federal government and tribe in an attempt to force the court to take action. We believe due process should be allowed and we should be given a fair hearing in court before the tribe is allowed to take any action.”

But Justice reminded MichGO that it already had turned down an offer to expedite matters.

“The Gun Lake Tribe has demonstrated to the Department that it may suffer irreparable harm should the trust acquisition be delayed any further. In light of this, the United States requested that MichGO join the United States in requesting expedited hearing on the summary judgment motions before the District Court. MichGO rejected this request and proposed instead that the United States prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. The United States does not believe an EIS is warranted in this case,” Gina Allery, a trial attorney for the Justice Department, said in an Oct. 27 letter to MichGO.

Interior’s final land into trust approval last May followed an unexplained 14-month delay after it had issued a preliminary approval with a “Finding of No Significant Impact” document in February 2004.

Helmholdt said MichGO’s continuing request for an EIS – a more rigorous analysis than an Environmental Assessment – is “a central part of our legal argument.”

But Justice may see the request as a replay of a tactic used by former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was indicted on corruption and fraud charges earlier this year. During its investigation, Justice found that Abramoff tried to get Interior to require an EIS in order to block the Gun Lake casino, because he believed it would threaten the market share of a nearby casino operated by one of his clients.

“MichGO’s irresponsible decision to continue to pursue its flawed lawsuit to block our casino has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and caused irreparable damage to the tribe and West Michigan’s economy,” Sprague said.

Sprague said the tribe continues to seek a gaming compact with the state and is pursuing an agreement, similar to others in the state, that would provide 8 percent of slot machine revenues to the state and two percent to local governments.

But Gun Lake plans to go forward with a Class III gaming facility with or without a compact, Sprague said. He cited a recent Interior decision to authorize Class III gaming for the Seminole Tribe in Florida without a tribal/state compact unless the two sovereigns negotiate a compact within 60 days. Without a compact, the state does not receive any gaming revenues and has no regulatory oversight role.

“A Class III compact would be best for the tribe, the state and surrounding communities. We are hopeful the Michigan Legislature and governor understand that for the benefit of Michigan and its residents, the time has come to sign the Gun Lake Casino compact,” Sprague said.

Liz Boyd, spokesman for Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, acknowledged the argument for a compact that would provide revenues for the state and municipal governments.

“We are having discussions with the tribe. Our former govenor, John Engler, perhaps said it best when he said, ‘One way or another that tribe will have gaming, so the question is with or without a compact.’ So the governor is really weighing the question very carefully and no decisions have been made yet,” Boyd said.