AP Photo/Regan Communications
Massachusetts Gambling Tribe This architectural rendering, released Tuesday, May 14, 2013 by Regan Communications, shows a new design for a resort casino that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe hopes to build in Taunton, Mass. if the tribe wins state and federal approvals for the project.

BIA Approves Mashpee’s Tribal-State Gaming Compact in 'Historic and Epic Moment'

Gale Courey Toensing

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s gaming compact with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, setting another major landmark on the tribe’s journey toward building Project First Light, a $500 million destination resort casino in the southeastern part of the state.

The BIA rejected an earlier compact. The revised compact was signed by Mashpee Chairman Cedric Cromwell and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick November 15, triggering a 45-day review period for the BIA to approve or reject the agreement. If the agency does not act within that time frame the agreement is deemed to be approved according to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

“It’s a historic and epic moment,” Cromwell told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It represents a collaborative and cooperative agreement between the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. No other state has designed a commercial gaming bill and added a tribal provision that respects and honors the rights of a federally recognized tribe while protecting the rights of the state.”

Patrick issued a statement lauding the BIA’s approval of the compact, the Boston Globe reported. “I’m pleased that the Commonwealth’s compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has been given final approval under federal law,” Patrick said. “This is another important step toward growing jobs and opportunity in the southeast region and a good deal for both the Commonwealth and the tribe.”

There are two more steps before the tribe can put shovels in the ground—the federal approval of a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and the Interior Department’s approval of the tribe’s land into trust application. The tribe, which has no reservation or trust lands, has asked Interior to take into trust as an initial reservation 145 acres for the proposed Project First Light resort casino in the City of Taunton and 170 acres in 11 parcels Mashpee on Cape Cod. Both sites are currently held in fee, meaning the land can be conveyed to whomever the owner pleases. Once Interior takes land into trust for a tribe, the land is inalienable and cannot be conveyed. In February 2012, Interior issued a preliminary approval designating these lands as an initial reservation.

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Public hearings on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) were held in early December, setting the clock running on a 45-day public comment period that will end around February 17. The comments  must be directed specifically toward the environmental impacts of the project  and the tribe’s planned mitigations, but some casino opponents raised issues unrelated to the environmental impacts.

Cromwell said he hasn’t taken the time to analyze the opposition—is it opposition to gaming in general or Indian gaming specifically? “You know, there are all kinds of issues about why folks don’t want something but I haven’t heard any sound reason for why the tribe shouldn’t have Indian gaming as a federally recognized tribe under IGRA once our land goes into trust.”

The tribe will have 30 days following the end of the public comment period to address any concerns raised, followed by federal review and the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement. “Once the final EIS is issued we come into the final stretch when the BIA will issue its Record of Decision which in essence takes the land into trust,” Cromwell said.

Opposition to the land into trust approval is likely, but Cromwell  expects that the new “Patchak patch”—will be “helpful.” The new rule ends a 30-day waiting period Interior established in 1996 for the assistant secretary to take land into trust for tribes wanting to develop casinos on trust land. That so-called “self-stay policy” was meant to give parties a heads up in case they wanted to file suit. The new rule clarifies that the assistant secretary’s decision is final, and it allows the assistant secretary to take the land into trust with no waiting period. Lawsuits, though, are still a possibility.

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“As we’re very aware Indian country through Indian gaming is a $27 billion industry that provides hundreds of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy. Unfortunately, there are those who just don’t want to see Indian country thrive, survive and strive to provide economies to uplift tribal nations,’ Cromwell said. “So there will be opposition but the good news is this: We’re very confident about our land into trust application, we’re very confident about the extensive and very hard work we’ve done, we’re very confident that we will prevail and create great economies for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, for the City of Taunton and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So that’s our focus and that’s where we’ve headed and we’re very excited about the future.”