ALBANY, N.Y. — A Wisconsin tribe’s dream of setting up a casino in the Catskills may be fading fast.
The Interior Department is scheduled to render a decision February 18 on a land into trust application from the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohicans to put 330 acres of land into trust in Sullivan County in exchange for dropping its land claim to 23,000 acres in Madison County. The band plans to build a $700 million casino resort in Monticello, about 90 miles from New York City. The band has applied directly to the Interior Department, claiming it does not need congressional approval for the land deal, but federal officials are wary of the unusual legal approach, according to an Associated Press (AP) report.
"The Department of the Interior has a very dim view of the untested legal underpinnings of the casino and land settlement," an official close to the negotiations told the AP. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the internal discussions.
The Stockbridge-Munsee application was filed with Interior on Dec. 29, soon after the band and former New York Gov. David Paterson suddenly announced that a tribal-state gaming compact had been forged to allow the Wisconsin tribe to build its Catskills casino more than 1,000 miles away from its 22,000-acre reservation in Wisconsin. Stockbridge-Munsee owns and operates the successful North Star Mohican Resort Casino in Bowler, Wis.
The proposal was greeted with almost universal opposition from Indian nations in New York state as well as racino owners and the general population, who voted 81 percent against the project in a statewide poll.
Racino owners have filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Albany to block the Stockbridge-Munsee casino. They say that when the state is facing a $10 billion deficit and thousands of layoffs, the Stockbridge-Munsee casino would result in the loss of 1,000 jobs at racinos and of $400 million a year in slot revenue that now flows to the state.
The Stockbridge-Munsees say the casino would provide the equivalent of 4,900 full-time jobs and be the single largest construction project in Sullivan County. The tribe has agreed to pay the state up to 25 percent of the slot revenue and provide the county with $15 million a year.
A recent internal letter from a tribal lawyer said approval appeared “highly unlikely,” according to the AP. A second official under the same condition of anonymity said there is strong federal opposition to the Stockbridge-Munsee project. Federal officials are reluctant to approve “off reservation” gaming for tribes with reservations far from the gaming site.
The tribe expected to get the necessary federal approvals this month, but in January, according to the tribe, federal officials suddenly expressed misgivings about the viability of the tribe’s land claim and the ability of the Interior Department to approve it without Congressional action, as the tribe wanted, the New York Times reported.
Kimberly Vele, the president of Stockbridge-Munsee tribe, said the Interior Department has done “an about-face. Interior said this is the path you could pursue. I don’t know what happened.”
She said the tribe will resume its fight for the land in Madison County if its land into trust application is rejected.
“We’ll go back to fighting it out in the court system, which is an unfortunate consequence,” she said. “I’m confident that the tribe has a very good case.”
Both the Oneida Indian Nation and the Seneca Nation of Indians have written to the Interior Department opposing the land swap deal, which was negotiated in secret by Paterson and announced in late November just weeks before he left office.
The Oneida Nation, which offered its hospitality to the Stockbridge-Munsee and other Indians, such as the Brothertown Indian Nation in the 18th century, refuted the Stockbridge-Munsee band’s claim of ties to the area.
"Unlike the Oneida Indian Nation, which has been here since time immemorial, the Stockbridge-Munsee of Wisconsin has no historical claims to land in this state," said Mark Emery, the Oneida Nation’s director of communications. "They have no more claim to land in New York than does a guest at a hotel.”
Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter recently wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “Any approval by the department would be extremely bad public policy and likely unlawful" he wrote. "We urge you to reject all external pressures to quickly review and approve what is a controversial project with broad, negative policy implications, the approval of which will bring about significant and costly litigation.”
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and local county officials have supported the casino project. The Oneida Nation recently launched a TV ad campaign spotlighting Schumer’s role in negotiating the “back room deal” to approve the tribal-state gaming compact.
If the Interior Department takes no action by February 18, it will be considered a tacit approval. In that event, the project might be forced before Congress.