Politics & Government

Feds take step that will speed another Indian casino

WASHINGTON — The Bureau of Indian Affairs has quietly dropped plans to study another potential location for a new Indian-operated casino in California's Madera County in a reversal that saves valuable time for the ambitious North Fork Rancheria project.

BIA officials now say they need not examine the casino potential of the so-called Old Mill site near the mountain town of North Fork. Instead, government and tribal officials will continue focusing on building the $250 million gambling facility off Highway 99 near the town of Madera.

"Upon careful consideration, the Pacific regional office has concluded…that the Old Mill site cannot be considered as a reasonable alternative," the BIA’s acting regional director, Amy Dutschke wrote Sunday.

Dutschke's decision follows furious backstage scrambling by both opponents and proponents of the North Fork Rancheria casino. It comes six weeks after a top Interior Department administrator in Washington, as one of his last official acts, ordered study of the Old Mill site.

The new decision means officials won't have to spend up to another year evaluating the economic and environmental consequences of building the casino on the 135-acre Old Mill site. This clears the way for completion of a long-delayed draft environmental impact statement centering on the Highway 99 site. Final Interior Department decisions could be rendered by the end of the year, though there are no guarantees.

"We're very excited about it," Elaine Fink, chair of the tribal council of what's formally called the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California, said Tuesday. "We knew the Old Mill site wasn’t an option…it’s just not feasible."

Many of the 1,700 members of the North Fork Rancheria consider the proposed new casino to be the foundation of their future economic well-being. As currently planned, the casino would include some 2,500 slot machines, 70 table games, multiple restaurants and a hotel. Planners are targeting a 305-acre site immediately north of Madera, at Avenue 17.

The proposal has drawn considerable attention and controversy, underscored by a May public hearing at the Madera County Fairgrounds attended by an estimated 800 people. Because the 305 acres near Highway 99 is not currently North Fork land, the tribe needs Interior Department approval to take the property into trust. North Fork leaders also believe they face resistance from other gaming tribes, who fear increased casino competition.

For reasons that Fink said she still does not fully understand, then-Assistant Secretary of the Interior Carl Artman on May 12 ordered his Sacramento BIA office to add the Old Mill site to the draft environmental impact statement.

"The [Old Mill] location may provide a viable location for a destination resort casino and could revitalize the tribal economy and the economy of the town of North Fork," Artman wrote.

The order from Washington stunned tribal and regional officials, who had already ruled out the Old Mill site. Contrary to Artman's stated belief, the property is not within the bounds of the North Fork Rancheria. It is also potentially tainted by its lumber legacy, leaving the government liable for a big environmental cleanup.

Nonetheless, regional BIA officials indicated they would comply with his orders. On May 23, Artman's last day in office before resigning, he acknowledged that "valid concerns" had been raised and left a final decision up to his Sacramento field office. On Sunday, the Sacramento office told consultants preparing the draft environmental impact statement that the Old Mill site could be safely ignored.

"Perhaps most importantly," Dutschke noted, "the North Fork Community Development Council (which owns the site) has emphasized…that the Old Mill site was not available to the North Fork Rancheria for gaming purposes."