A move by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to hasten the process of transferring land into trust threatens the ability of the city of Medford to object to plans for a Coquille Indian Tribe casino on South Pacific Highway. The city is right to object to this change.
In May, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn announced a proposed rule that would do away with a waiting period that now applies when a tribe asks to have land placed in trust. Once land is transferred into trust, it can become party of the tribe's reservation land.
According to Washburn's announcement, the rule change would "demonstrate the administration's commitment to restoring tribal homelands and furthering economic development on Indian reservations." That sounds laudable, but the proposed rule change is too broad and fails to protect the interests of local governments when tribes seek to establish gambling casinos.
According to Washburn, "The principle purpose of this proposed rule is to provide greater certainty to tribes in their ability to develop lands acquired in trust for purposes such as housing, schools and economic development." The announcement goes on to say that, in cases involving gambling, the assistant secretary's decision will be final and eliminates the 30-day waiting period now on the books.
A "simple change in ownership status itself is not an act that causes irreparable harm in many cases," the statement says.
That statement does not appear to apply in Medford's situation.
The Coquille tribe has no reservation land in Southern Oregon now, although it claims the region as part of the tribe's historic territory. The tribe is not seeking to establish housing or schools. It wants to open a casino.
Medford officials have concerns about the loss of tax revenue and increased costs for law enforcement, fire protection, streets and sewers. The proposed change would require the city to go to court after the land was placed in trust and prove it would harm the city's interest.
The Coquille tribe proposes a Class II casino, consisting of gambling machines but no craps, roulette, blackjack or other table games that are features of Class III casinos. No Class II casinos exist in Oregon now.
The governor has veto power over any new Class III casinos but not over Class II operations. That makes it even more important that local governments be allowed plenty of time and opportunity to raise objections.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs should amend its rule change to give local governments a greater voice when a tribe wants to establish a gambling casino.